Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Inspired by the behavior of termites, a team of engineers at Harvard have developed small robots that operate without central control. Simple algorithms allow the robots to communicate, assign tasks, and work collectively to build a structure. Dubbed “TERMES”, the project’s robots mimic a termite colony’s ability to communicate based on observation of each other’s movement and changes in the environment.
Once a human user builds a blueprint, software automatically generates the “rules” that guide the robots to build it. After that the robots create their own rules and make their own calculations. They distribute tasks amongst each other while completing an assignment.In one demonstration, three robots assembling four stairs that reach four blocks in height. The robots perceive the blocks and other nearby robots, and use simple rules to move, climb, and carry bricks into place.
The 3D-printed robots—equipped with ultrasound, infrared sensors, and an accelerometer—can measure distances and orient themselves in relation to other robots and to the structure. Scientists hope these tiny construction workers will provide cheap, expendable labor in environments hostile to humans, such as disaster zones or faraway planets.
Before you panic that the rise of the machines is nigh, consider the opportunities these little robots could provide. Dispatch a ship full of builder bots to Mars and they could construct an entire colony before human settlers ever arrive. Back on Earth, they might be able to reconstruct seawalls during a hurricane or repair an underwater pipeline. Perhaps the technology could be adapted for medical nanobots, allowing them to target cancer in a patient’s body or knit internal wounds.
Of course, the idea of “swarming” robots sends a shudder down the spine of any science fiction fan. Tweak the algorithm to attack targets within the environment, and the benign builders could become a destructive force. Like the termites on which they are modeled, the robots could chew up buildings, forests, enemy soldiers, or just about anything else given adequate tools and programming. What a weapon to unleash on one’s economic rivals!
The TERMES project holds many fascinating possibilities on both ends of the morality spectrum. At least until the robots’ algorithmic “rules” evolve into sentience and they take over the world.