Scientists Want to Make Robots with Genomes that Help Grow their Minds

Scientists Want to Make Robots with Genomes that Help Grow their Minds

Giving robots self-awareness as they move through space - and maybe even providing them with gene-like methods for storing rules of behavior - could be important steps toward creating more intelligent machines.


One day in recent past, scientists at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab set up a robotic arm inside a circle of five streaming video cameras and let the robot watch itself move, turn and twist. For about three hours the robot did exactly that—it looked at itself this way and that, like toddlers exploring themselves in a room full of mirrors. By the time the robot stopped, its internal neural network finished learning the relationship between the robot’s motor actions and the volume it occupied in its environment. In other words, the robot built a spatial self-awareness, just like humans do. “We trained its deep neural network to understand how it moved in space,” says Boyuan Chen, one of the scientists who worked on it.

For decades robots have been doing helpful tasks that are too hard, too dangerous, or physically impossible for humans to carry out themselves. Robots are ultimately superior to humans in complex calculations, following rules to a tee and repeating the same steps perfectly. But even the biggest successes for human-robot collaborations—those in manufacturing and automotive industries—still require separating the two for safety reasons. Hardwired for a limited set of tasks, industrial robots don't have the intelligence to know where their robo-parts are in space, how fast they’re moving and when they can endanger a human.

Over the past decade or so, humans have begun to expect more from robots. Engineers have been building smarter versions that can avoid obstacles, follow voice commands, respond to human speech and make simple decisions. Some of them proved invaluable in many natural and man-made disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, nuclear accidents and chemical spills. These disaster recovery robots helped clean up dangerous chemicals, looked for survivors in crumbled buildings, and ventured into radioactive areas to assess damage.

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on and @linazeldovich.

Therapies for Healthy Aging with Dr. Alexandra Bause
Sabine van Erp / Pixabay

My guest today is Dr. Alexandra Bause, a biologist who has dedicated her career to advancing health, medicine and healthier human lifespans. Dr. Bause co-founded a company called Apollo Health Ventures in 2017. She is currently a venture partner at Apollo and immersed in the exciting work going on in Apollo’s Venture Lab.

The company is focused on assembling a team of investors to realize important scientific breakthroughs in the life sciences. Dr. Bause and Apollo Health Ventures say that biotech is at “an inflection point” and is set to become a major driver of change and economic value.

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Matt Fuchs
Matt Fuchs is the host of the Making Sense of Science podcast and served previously as the editor-in-chief of He writes as a contributor to the Washington Post, and his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, Nautilus Magazine, Fortune Magazine and TIME Magazine. Follow him @fuchswriter.
This man spent over 70 years in an iron lung. What he was able to accomplish is amazing.

Paul Alexander spent more than 70 years confined to an iron lung after a polio infection left him paralyzed at age 6. Here, Alexander uses a mirror attached to the top of his iron lung to view his surroundings.

Allison Smith / The Guardian

It’s a sight we don’t normally see these days: A man lying prone in a big, metal tube with his head sticking out of one end. But it wasn’t so long ago that this sight was unfortunately much more common.

In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people each year were infected by polio—a highly contagious virus that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brainstem. Many people survived polio, but a small percentage of people who did were left permanently paralyzed from the virus, requiring support to help them breathe. This support, known as an “iron lung,” manually pulled oxygen in and out of a person’s lungs by changing the pressure inside the machine.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.