A new four-legged robot can automatically synthesize a predictive model of its own topology (where and how its body parts are connected), and then successfully move around. It can also use this "proprioceptive" sense to determine if a component has been damaged, and then model new movements that take the damage into account.
If the robot is damaged, it can sense the problem and attempt to compensate. The robot has tilt and angle sensors in all of its joints; readings from these sensors are used by the robot to create a self-image. If sensors indicate that a part is missing or damaged, it changes its image of itself and moves on.
As for sf references, everybody remembers the HAL-9000 unit that ran the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL was also able to sense problems in the ship and then get one if its servants (the human astronauts) to install new components, if necessary.
Despite their achievement, the researchers remain modest in the face of nature. "We never officially named it, but we usually refer to it as the Starfish robot, even though a real starfish has five rather than four legs," said lead researcher Josh Bongard, now at the University of Vermont. "Also, a real starfish is much better than our robot at recovering from injury, because it can actually regrow its legs."
See a remarkable Starfish robot video.
Many more movies and pictures of the Starfish robot can be found here.