Robots hold key to evolution of language

Roger Highfield in The Telegraph:

Screenhunter_03_feb_23_1250They may look like toys, but these robots have helped to back one theory of the origins of language.

Sometime between seven million years ago, when we shared our last common ancestor with chimps, and 150,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans emerged, true language came into being.

One idea of how it emerged from the “primordial soup” of communication in the animal kingdom, whether primitive signalling between cells, the dance of bees, territorial calls and birdsong, goes as follows.

Early humans had a few specific utterances, from howls to grunts, that became associated with specific objects. Crucially, these associations formed when information transfer was beneficial for both speaker and listener. And in this way, the evolution of cooperation was crucial for language to evolve.

But this theory has been impossible to prove, given the lack of time machines or lack of fossil evidence of ancient tongues.

Now backing for the role of cooperation has come from experiments with robots – both real and virtual – that possess evolving software. The study is described today by a group including Dario Floreano of Ecole Polytechnique of the Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, and Laurent Keller of the University of Lausanne, in the journal Current Biology.

More here.