Aug 152014
 
Just as single cells can assemble into complex multicellular organisms, the individual Kilobots can follow simple rules to autonomously assemble into predetermined shapes. The vast scale of this swarm is a milestone in itself. Credit: Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS

Just as single cells can assemble into complex multicellular organisms, the individual Kilobots can follow simple rules to autonomously assemble into predetermined shapes. The vast scale of this swarm is a milestone in itself.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS

“Form a sea star shape,” directs a computer scientist, sending the command to 1,024 little bots simultaneously via an infrared light. The robots begin to blink at one another and then gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. “Now form the letter K.”

The ‘K’ stands for Kilobots, the name given to these extremely simple robots, each just a few centimeters across, standing on three pin-like legs. Instead of one highly-complex robot, a “kilo” of robots collaborate, providing a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors.

Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or a thousand starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse (see video). To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

This self-organizing swarm was created in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The advance is described in the August 15 issue of Science.

“The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple—and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” says Nagpal. “At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself.”

“Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities—whether you think of cells or insects or animals—that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” says lead author Michael Rubenstein, a research associate at Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

He cites, for example, the behavior of a colony of army ants. By linking together, they can form rafts and bridges to cross difficult terrain. Social amoebas do something similar at a microscopic scale: when food is scarce, they join together to create a fruiting body capable of escaping the local environment. In cuttlefish, color changes at the level of individual cells can help the entire organism blend into its surroundings. (And as Nagpal points out—with a smile—a school of fish in the movie Finding Nemo also collaborate when they form the shape of an arrow to point Nemo toward the jet stream.)

“We are especially inspired by systems where individuals can self-assemble together to solve problems,” says Nagpal. Her research group made news in February 2014 with a group of termite-inspired robots that can collaboratively perform construction tasks using simple forms of coordination.

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