Ro­botic ter­mites build with­out a boss

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SCIENCE - By KERRY SHERIDAN

US sci­en­tists showed off tiny ro­bots last Thurs­day that can tackle tasks much like real-life ter­mites, work­ing col­lec­tively to build struc­tures with­out fol­low­ing or­ders from a boss.

The me­chan­i­cal crea­tures can tote bricks, build stair­cases or con­struct a pyramid, sci­en­tists from Har­vard Univer­sity said at the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence an­nual meet­ing.

Some di­rec­tion is needed for the tech­no­log­i­cal ter­mites, known as TER­MES, which were built as part of a four-year project that was de­tailed in the Feb 13 edi­tion of the jour­nal Sci­ence.

Rather than obey­ing di­rect or­ders from an over­seer, the ro­bots rely on a con­cept known as stig­mergy, which is a kind of im­plicit com­mu­ni­ca­tion whereby the ma­chines ob­serve each oth­ers’ changes to the en­vi­ron­ment and act ac­cord­ingly, re­searchers said.

“You can give the ro­bots, in ef­fect, a pic­ture of what you want them to build,” ex­plained Justin Wer­fel, a re­search sci­en­tist at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Wyss In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cally In­spired En­gi­neer­ing.

“And it doesn’t mat­ter how many of them there are or whether that num­ber changes or which ro­bot does what and when,” he told re­porters. “To­gether, they will wind up build­ing what you asked for.”

Equipped with three mo­tors, each of the ro­bots has limited sens­ing abil­ity that only gives in­for­ma­tion about the ma­chine’s di­rect sur­round­ings.

One ro­bot on the team works in par­al­lel with oth­ers, with­out knowl­edge of the over­all process – who is build­ing what, or where.

But some­how, it works, and a state­ment by the sci­ence team de­scribed the project as “an im­por­tant proof of con­cept for scal­able, dis­trib­uted ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence”.

Some­day, far in the fu­ture, Wer­fel and co-au­thor Kirstin Petersen, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Har­vard, hope the ro­bots will be able to build things people needs in places hu­mans may not be able to go, such as con­struct­ing habi­tats on Mars, or lay­ing sand­bags ahead of a flood.

“We co-de­signed ro­bots and bricks in an ef­fort to make the sys­tem as min­i­mal­ist and re­li­able as pos­si­ble,” said Petersen.

The project is not the first of its kind and other ro­bot­ics that fol­low sim­i­lar pro­cesses have been de­signed for years.

But what is dif­fer­ent here is the way it closely mir­rors the pro­cesses of ter­mites, which build mas­sive and elab­o­rate mound colonies 500 times their own size with­out any ap­par­ent in­struc­tion from a leader.

“This sys­tem is ex­tremely el­e­gant, as it al­lows the au­ton­o­mous con­struc­tion of any pre­de­fined struc­ture with sim­ple ro­bots,” said an ac­com­pa­ny­ing ed­i­to­rial in Sci­ence by Ju­dith Korb, a pro­fes­sor of evo­lu­tion and ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Freiburg, Ger­many. – AFP

di­rec­tor of tech­nol­ogy for urtheCast, with a pic­ture of the com­pany’s two video cam­eras that are at­tached to the In­ter­na­tional Space

Kirstin Petersen, an aca­demic fel­low in ar­tif­i­cal in­tel­li­gence at Har­vard univer­sity, demon­strates ro­bots in­spired by ter­mites at the amer­i­can as­so­ci­a­tion for the ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence meeet­ing in Chicago. – aFP Photo

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