The emergence of canalization and evolvability in an open-ended, interactive evolutionary system


    Natural evolution has produced a tremendous diversity of functional organisms. Many believe an essential component of this process was the evolution of evolvability, whereby evolution speeds up its ability to innovate by generating a more adaptive pool of offspring. One hypothesized mechanism for evolvability is developmental canalization, wherein certain dimensions of variation become more likely to be traversed and others are prevented from being explored (e.g. offspring tend to have similarly sized legs, and mutations affect the length of both legs, not each leg individually). While ubiquitous in nature, canalization almost never evolves in computational simulations of evolution. Not only does that deprive us of in silico models in which to study the evolution of evolvability, but it also raises the question of which conditions give rise to this form of evolvability. Answering this question would shed light on why such evolvability emerged naturally and could accelerate engineering efforts to harness evolution to solve important engineering challenges. In this paper we reveal a unique system in which canalization did emerge in computational evolution. We document that genomes entrench certain dimensions of variation that were frequently explored during their evolutionary history. The genetic representation of these organisms also evolved to be highly modular and hierarchical, and we show that these organizational properties correlate with increased fitness. Interestingly, the type of computational evolutionary experiment that produced this evolvability was very different from traditional digital evolution in that there was no objective, suggesting that open-ended, divergent evolutionary processes may be necessary for the evolution of evolvability.


    Uber AI


    Joost Huizinga, Kenneth O. Stanley, Jeff Clune


    Artificial Life (to appear)

    Full Paper

    ‘The emergence of canalization and evolvability in an open-ended, interactive evolutionary system’ (PDF on arXiv)

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    Kenneth O. Stanley
    Before joining Uber AI Labs full time, Ken was an associate professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida (he is currently on leave). He is a leader in neuroevolution (combining neural networks with evolutionary techniques), where he helped invent prominent algorithms such as NEAT, CPPNs, HyperNEAT, and novelty search. His ideas have also reached a broader audience through the recent popular science book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.
    Jeff Clune
    Jeff Clune is the Loy and Edith Harris Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Wyoming and a Senior Research Manager and founding member of Uber AI Labs, which was formed after Uber acquired the startup Geometric Intelligence. Jeff focuses on robotics and training neural networks via deep learning and deep reinforcement learning. He has also researched open questions in evolutionary biology using computational models of evolution, including studying the evolutionary origins of modularity, hierarchy, and evolvability. Prior to becoming a professor, he was a Research Scientist at Cornell University, received a PhD in computer science and an MA in philosophy from Michigan State University, and received a BA in philosophy from the University of Michigan. More about Jeff’s research can be found at