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How to Build an Ape

The whole field of artificial intelligence (AI) is fascinating and has a lot to teach about design in nature. The Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Germany has released videos of one of its projects. It is a robotic ape that moves like a gorilla by walking on its feet and knuckles. Quite remarkable.

The videos are worth a look. The robotic ape moves with remarkable dexterity and coordination. Close-up shots of the coordinating gears, bending knees, along with pelvic motion, give you an idea of the level of engineering expertise that goes into replicating a gorilla's natural motion.

What can the robot ape tell us about intelligent design?

  • When ID theorists make comparisons between biological systems and mechanical ones, they are trying to point to how biological systems have the same features that we recognize in engineered systems. The robotic ape prompts such an analogy. When we see it, we recognize that it was designed. Why can't we draw the same conclusions when we see a real ape?
  • A common argument against ID is to cite examples of "bad design." This argument represents a value statement rather than a scientific assessment of whether something is designed or not. But given that "bad design" does not necessarily negate the fact of design, what we often find is that seemingly unnecessary or inefficient features end up serving an important function within the framework of the organism. Interestingly, AI roboticists find that mimicking biological structures is actually more effective in accomplishing their goals than coming up with complete new body plans. Indeed, the team that built the robot ape is hoping to make the spinal column more flexible, like a real spinal column. This will smooth out the robot ape's movements and extend its range of motion.
  • The robot ape is an impressive work of engineering, but it still cannot self-replicate. Living apes can produce offspring. One could imagine a robot that can build other robots, but the idea of a robot that is able to reproduce itself using its own parts boggles the mind. That would be an incredible feat of engineering, yet from a Darwinian perspective this ability must have arisen as a result of mutations and natural selection. This attributes divine-like qualities to what are supposed to be purely naturalistic mechanisms.

Except in the imagination of Darwinian theorists, chance and necessity do not take the place of planning and forethought. Certainly AI researchers operating under Darwinian assumptions would not get very far in designing a robot. When we see biological organisms with integrated, complex features, features that in any other setting would obviously be judged a product of design, it seems reasonable to conclude that they are, in fact, designed.