A collective form of intelligence
“To watch a group of bees is to see a frenzy of different interests merge into a single, clear thought, especially when deciding where to move the superorganism that is the swarm. Failing to move the swarm as a single, committed unit risks splitting up the hive and losing the queen.” Jason Castro, Scientific American.
Like bees and other insects, multirobot systems consist of large numbers of physical robots (hundreds or even thousands) that can form a collective response to problem-solving, by simply interacting with each other in a swarm-intelligent fashion.
Cost is a key-factor in swarm robotics along with size; therefore the individual robots within the team generally have a simple design that is easy to coordinate. With no dominant planner or decider in the swarm, the individual robots can quickly commit to single courses of action as one giant swarm, which has capabilities that individual robots (even very complex and expensive ones) don’t possess. Miniature multirobot systems are very efficient, robust, flexible and scalable.
Computer scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder are currently looking for some help to crowdfund a huge swarm of their own little robots, called Droplets. The Droplets can generate an unlimited energy supply through their legs, turn in multiple directions, communicate with each other, sense their environment in colour, self-correct and reprogram themselves. A thousand can be made for about US $30,000. But what practical use will they have in the real world?
Multirobot systems like the Droplets are ideal for situations that require miniaturization, and are best suited to tasks that demand cheap designs and precision, for instance the mapping of an oil spill and mining tasks. Also some artists may use swarm robotic techniques to realize new forms of interactive art, and teachers could bring a whole new dimension to the learning process.
“The entire world is actually a swarm. So everything you see is just a swarm of atoms working together. By taking these robots in our hands and programming them, we may be able to increase our understanding of what life is.” Nikolaus Correll, Asst. Professor of Computer Science, CU Boulder.
The “hive mind” principle is being applied to other types of machine intelligence. The French nanomedicine company Nanobiotix is pioneering a new treatment for cancer, based on the combined application of nanotechnologies and biotechnologies. Pre-programmed nanoparticles are used to maximize the effect of radiotherapy within tumor cells, whilst minimising the damage to healthy cells.
In another massive breakthrough, a group of scientists from Tech United recently showcased a project called RoboEarth, which aims to develop a world wide web that robots can merge with to upload and download information, and learn new tasks from each other. This process would be completely independent of humans, which has raised concerns about the direction this technology could take without adequate safeguards.