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What purpose does research in self organizing systems serve?

September 4, 2011

A few days ago I wrote a post about  Harvard University’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group.  In particular the post dealt with the fascinating Kilobot project of theirs.  The Kilobots can be built for a bit under $15 dollars each, and have already demonstrated the rudimentary ability to perform tasks in concert.

Several people whom I respect (including my wife), watched the video demonstration and asked me what possible practical use could research like this serve.  I was a bit defensive at first, because I thought it would be self evident that the ability to put together relatively inexpensive robotic systems, with tiny, cheap, individual components,  which learn from their environment, and communicate with each other and cooperate, could potentially unlock thousands of real-world solutions to problems ranging from mine disasters to fine-grained topographical mapping of environments unsuitable for humans.

After thinking about it for awhile I realized that it isn’t self evident at all.  The best way to explain this is probably ant behavior.  Ants are not very smart as individuals.  But as a collective they are awesomely well adapted for their perpetuation as a species.  If you’ve ever had a serious ant infestation, and have tried to remedy it, you’ll know how impressive their abilities can be.  They send emissaries out looking for food.  When one of those emissaries finds food  it communicates that information to the other worker ants (through a pheromone trail).  Once the trail is established a column of ants forms to the food source.  That column can be disrupted, but it really doesn’t matter in most cases, because another ant might find the same source of food, and establish a new column, or find a new food source.

There could be many useful applications for such swarming behavior.  I’d love to see some speculations in the comments here as to what they might be.

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