University of Vermont

Joshua Bongard teams up with a multidisciplinary group of scientists at Vassar College

Josh BongardDr. Joshua Bongard, Associate Professor of Computer Science in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, has teamed up with a multidisciplinary group of scientists at Vassar College on a project that lies at the intersection of biological, cognitive and computer science. By combining methodologies from these traditionally distinct areas, this project promises to reveal new insights that are only possible through interdisciplinary collaboration. Support for this work has come in the form of a new and prestigious tier one INSPIRE award from the NSF.

The team will be evolving digital and embodied robots to test the hypothesis that gene duplication and differentiation beget modularity, which, in turn, drives evolvability. Solving the problem of evolvability is critical to moving Dr. Bongard's field forward. The scholars from UVM and Vassar have a rich history of engaging undergraduates in their research, along with a strong commitment to graduate student training and mentoring. Dr. Bongard's project will allow for the expansion of the robot education platform rapidly developing at UVM, and further the transdisciplinary mission of UVM's College of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences.

According to NSF, "The INSPIRE awards program was established to address some of the most complicated and pressing scientific problems that lie at the intersection of traditional disciplines. It is intended to encourage investigators to submit bold, exceptional proposals that some may consider to be at a disadvantage in a standard NSF review process; it is not intended for proposals that are more appropriate for existing award mechanisms." There were approximately thirty awards selected out of hundreds of submissions.

"We're very excited about receiving this award as it will allow us to bring together many ideas from different domains: how did nature organize the genomes of organisms, and can we learn from that to evolve useful and interesting robots?” said Bongard, who further added, “And, hopefully, our findings will allow us to make contributions to both robotics and biology."

The four year award begins January 1, 2014 and it provides $250K for the Vassar researchers and $250K for the UVM team. The two teams began their collaboration when Bongard was invited to speak at Vassar about his robotics research as well as Ludobots, a website created to involve K-12 and undergraduate students in robot design. Funds will also be used to bolster both groups' outreach efforts.