Radio emerges from the electronic soup
19:00 28 August 02
A self-organising electronic circuit has stunned engineers by turning itself into a radio receiver.
What should have been an oscillator became a radio
This accidental reinvention of the radio followed an experiment to see if an automated design process, that uses an evolutionary computer program, could be used to “breed” an electronic circuit called an oscillator. An oscillator produces a repetitive electronic signal, usually in the form of a sine wave.
Paul Layzell and Jon Bird at the University of Sussex in Brighton applied the program to a simple arrangement of transistors and found that an oscillating output did indeed evolve.
But when they looked more closely they found that, despite producing an oscillating signal, the circuit itself was not actually an oscillator. Instead, it was behaving more like a radio receiver, picking up a signal from a nearby computer and delivering it as an output.
In essence, the evolving circuit had cheated, relaying oscillations generated elsewhere, rather than generating its own.
Layzell and Bird were using the software to control the connections between 10 transistors plugged into a circuit board that was fitted with programmable switches. The switches made it possible to connect the transistors differently.
Treating each switch as analogous to a gene allowed new circuits to evolve. Those that oscillated best were allowed to survive to a next generation. These “fittest” candidates were then mated by mixing their genes together, or mutated by making random changes to them.
After several thousand generations you end up with a clear winner, says Layzell. But precisely why the winner was a radio still mystifies them.
To pick up a radio signal you need other elements such as an antenna. After exhaustive testing they found that a long track in the circuit board had functioned as the antenna. But how the circuit “figured out” that this would work is not known.
“There’s probably one sudden key mutation that enabled radio frequencies to be picked up,” says Bird.
19:00 28 August 02
(c) New Scientist