About this project

The aim of this four-year project is to address the question “How does culture emerge as a novel property of social animals?” or, to put it another way “why do we (humans) have culture?”. This is a difficult question. The archaeological record from a few hundred thousand years ago tells us almost nothing about how early humans made the transition from being social animals to cultural.
We are approaching this question in a radical new way: by building an artificial ‘society’ of robots; programming the robots with what we believe to be a necessary set of initial conditions (i.e. social behaviours), then ‘free-running’ this robot society. What we then hope to observe is the emergence of ‘proto-cultural’ behaviours - evidence for the very early steps in the transition from social to cultural.

The project poses huge technical as well as philosophical difficulties, for instance
  1. “what are the initial conditions - the pre-requisites for culture?”.
  2. Once we have these “can we program a group of robots with these pre-requisites, and what environment do the robots need to ‘live’ in?”.
  3. Assuming something interesting does happen, “how can we make sense of what we observe, bearing in mind that it will be robot- rather than human-culture?”.
  4. Then, perhaps the biggest question, if we believe we do see evidence of the emergence of a robot proto-culture “is what we have learned about how that proto-culture has emerged, generalisable from robots to humans (or indeed any social species)?”.
The project is a trans-disciplinary collaboration of six UK university partners: Abertay-Dundee, Exeter, Leeds Met, Manchester, Warwick and UWE (project lead). The project started on 1 September 2007 and will run until 29 February 2012.

For more detail see: