WASHINGTON Aug 14 They look vaguely like
miniature hockey pucks skittering along on three pin-like metal
legs, but a swarm of small robots called Kilobots at a
laboratory at Harvard University is making a little bit of
history for automatons everywhere.
Researchers who created a battalion of 1,024 of these robots
said on Thursday the mini-machines are able to communicate with
one another and organize themselves into two-dimensional shapes
like letters of the alphabet.
Much smaller groups of robots have been able to carry out
similar tasks, but never a group this size.
The Kilobots are told by the researchers via an infrared
transmitter to do a certain job. The robots then do it
collectively without further input from a human being.
In a study published in the journal Science, they formed
themselves on a large tabletop into the shapes of the letter
"K," a star, a solid square and a wrench.
It may be a step forward for collective artificial
intelligence, although the researchers acknowledge the Kilobots
are not exactly thinking deep thoughts.
"This is a 'collective' of robots - a group of robots that
work together to complete a common goal," said Harvard computer
scientist Michael Rubenstein, who led the study. "If you call
collective artificial intelligence the ability of a 'collective'
to start to behave as a single entity, you could call this
collective artificial intelligence."
The Kilobots are simple and inexpensive robots built to talk
to fellow Kilobots and sense the location of those others using
infrared light. They use vibration motors to slide across a
surface on their three legs.
But the surface must be very smooth. The one used in this
study was essentially an eight foot (2.4 meter) by eight foot
"dry erase" board tabletop. Even minor surface friction like
that of paper halts them.
The robots measure about 1.2 inches in diameter and two
inches tall. The material to build each of them cost just $14.
Rubenstein said the research anticipates a day when people
may send many robots acting as a single entity to perform a task
- perhaps to a destination like Mars - instead of humans or a
A "collective" may better handle an unknown environment -
for example, forming into a snake shape to navigate sand dunes
or like a ball to roll down a hill. He said a "collective" also
is "fault tolerant" - if a single robot among 1,000 breaks down,
plenty are left to do the job.
The Kilobot name is a play on the word kilobit, meaning
1,024 bits of digital information. But to some it might sound
menacing - as in "killer robot" - as if it belongs in a movie
like "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."
"I tell people that these robots are not very dangerous. The
only way that they could hurt you is if you try to eat one. They
can't even go over a piece of paper. So they're kind of stuck
where they are," Rubenstein said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham, editing by G Crosse)