The Robot Flash Mob is Here
Three words: Self. Organizing. Robots.
That concept may strike fear in the hearts of many — but when you see the first non-flesh flash mob, containing more than 1,000 robots, you have to admit it’s pretty darn cool.
Swarm robots — intelligent droids that communicate among each other to accomplish simple tasks — have been around for over a decade. But until recently, researchers have only been able to get roughly 100 robots working together. Now computer scientists at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have found a way to make more than 1,000 robots organize themselves into simple shapes.
Harvard Professor Radhika Nagpal’s lab based its work on the way simple organisms can join together to form more complex bodies — or, as ants often do, gather and connect to accomplish a more complex task.
“The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple — and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” Professor Nagpal told The Harvard Gazette.
The team’s robots, called Kilobots, are comparatively simple. They move about by vibrating a pair of stiff wire legs, and communicate via infrared light. The robots can’t see, and there’s no organizing principle (like a camera above to tell the robots where to go) beyond the single, two-dimensional design command sent to all the robots at once.
Nagpal’s team was able to overcome the 100 robot limitation by assigning four lieutenant robots, positioned at crucial points in the design. The rest use edge detection and group tracking for general orientation to start assembling themselves into the proper shape.
“These robots are much simpler than many conventional robots, and as a result, their abilities are more variable and less reliable,” said Michael Rubenstein, a research associate at Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute, and the lead author of the paper on the team’s findings, published in the August 15 issue of Science.
However, the sheer scale and self-correcting capabilities of the Kilobot swarm appeared to overcome these inconsistencies.
The robots successfully created three shapes: a wrench, the letter “K” and a starfish. Though the video above shows the time-lapse version of each robot flash mob, the realty was less “flash” and more of a slow burn. The wrench took roughly 6 hours to complete, and both the “K” and starfish took almost 12 hours.
Even so, the fact that hundreds of low-cost robots completing a complex human-specified task with little more than one instruction heralds a significant development in artificial intelligence. Nagpal told Harvard Gazette that this is the wave of the future: “increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways.”
If the idea of a robot army that can create a phalanx with one command intrigues you, you’re in luck. Harvard is offering the Kilobot robot design and software as open-source, as long as you do not intend to put any of it to commercial use. Robot flash mobs should be fine.