Meet The First Flash Mob Robots, The Kilobots

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots. Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.

Harvard University has assembled the world’s first one-thousand plus robot flash mob.

Just as single cells can assemble into complex multicellular organisms, the individual bots can follow simple rules to autonomously assemble into predetermined shapes.

“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 simple robots, each just a few centimetres 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 behaviours.

The Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviours performed en masse. To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence.

This self-organising 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 journal 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.”

Take for example the behaviour 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, colour changes at the level of individual cells can help the entire organism blend into its surroundings.

“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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