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Rise of the Machines? Scientists Develop Self-Organizing Robot Swarm [VIDEO]

Aug 15, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

Scientists have developed the first "flash mob" of more than 1,000 tiny robots that can assemble themselves into various shapes, such as those of sea stars or letters of the alphabet.

The robots, called Kilobots, represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence. Harvard University researchers designed them to mimic the behavior of insects and other organisms that can cooperate with each other in large groups. Just like a swarm of bees or a flock of birds, a swarm of robots can work together with any human intervention.

"The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple - and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible," Radhika Nagpal, involved in the development of these little bots, said in a statement. "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," added lead author Michael Rubenstein.

The Kilobots use vibration motors to slide across the surface and infrared lights to communicate with their neighbors. They can even correct their own mistakes; if a traffic jam forms or a robot moves off-course nearby robots sense the problem and cooperate to fix it.

Such self-organizing robotic systems have been devised before, but they have been limited to much smaller numbers of robots - until now.

Though, even these clever bots have limitations due to their simple design. Each robot can communicate with a few of its neighbors through infrared transmitters and receivers, but the bots have no access to a bird's eye view of the entire group.

"These robots are much simpler than many conventional robots, and as a result, their abilities are more variable and less reliable," Rubenstein explained. "For example, the Kilobots have trouble moving in a straight line, and the accuracy of distance sensing can vary from robot to robot."

The study describing the Kilobots was published Thursday in the journal Science.

[Credit: Harvard University]

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