Human language stands as one of the most important leaps in evolution (Bickerton, 1990; Deacon, 1997; Maynard Smith and Szathmary, 1995). It is one of its most recent inventions: it might have emerged in human evolution as recently as 50.000 years ago. Our society emerges, to a large extent, from the cultural evolution allowed by our simbolic minds. Words constitute the substrate of our communication system and the combinatorial nature of language (with a virtually infinite universe of sentences) allows to describe and eventually manipulate our world. By means of a fully developed communication system, human societies have been able to store astronomic amounts of information beyond the limits imposed by purely biological constraints. As individuals sharing our knowledge and the cumulative experience of past generations, we are able to predict the future and adapt in ways that only cultural evolution can permit.
The faculty of language makes us different from any other species (Hauser et al., 2002). The differences between animal communication and human language are fundamental, both in their structure and function. Although evolutionary precursors exist, it is remarkable to see that there seems to be no intermediate stage between them (Ujhelyi, 1996).
One possible approach to these questions is to analyse the patterns of communication emerging from interacting, artificial systems. Such an approximation has been proven successful within biology, and is known as Artificial Life (shortly Alife). Alife systems can be structurally far from their organic counterparts, but they often display very similar solutions to common problems. For example, evolving populations of programs competing for computer memory resources and incorporating mistakes when replicating can develop parasitism, sex or cooperation (Ray, 1991; Adami 1998). Such type of behaviors are easily recognized as essential traits of living systems. The observation of common traits strongly suggests convergent evolution at its fundamental level. In other words, if virtual creatures eventually behave as real ones, it might be the case that the spectrum of possible solutions displayed by complex systems is actually very narrow. Simple forms of language are actually known to emerge within populations of interacting, artificial agents. Such individuals have a simple cognitive architecture but the colective is nevertheless able to develop communication (Cangelosi and Parisi, 1998; Kirby, 2001). These developments define a whole area within Alife known as evolutionary linguistics (see Steels, 2003 and references therein).
Artificial agents are not just a window into language origins and universals. The near future will host the emergence of new communication forms among humans and robots. Advances in artificial intelligence and technology have been made possible the development of embodied agents with the necessary degree of internal complexity to exhibit different types of emergent behavior. Robots can incorporate a high degree of behavioral plasticity, memory and interaction capabilities. Either under the presence of comunicating humans or other robots, they can actively respond to incoming information and develop new behavioral patterns. Communication among artificial creatures and humans is one of the fundamental issues of AI, but emergent communication among artificial beings is no less important. Our future society will experience considerable changes once robotic agents become incorporated to our daily life and start interacting with us. Perhaps new forms of language might finally emerge and start change our society in ways that we barely imagine right now. The project ECAGENTS will explore the basic laws underlying the emergence of communication in natural and artificial systems.
Our work at the Complex Systems Lab within this project will involve exploration of universal patterns in human language (using complex networks theory), development of models of emergence of language graphs (lexical matrices, word-word interaction graphs and protogrammars) as well as the relevance of these concepts within robot communication, computation and other forms of information transfer such as those relevant to nanosystems.
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