Through commands, autonomous devices arrange selves into vast, complex shapes

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots


The first 1,000-robot flash mob has assembled at Harvard University.

“Form a sea-star shape,” directs a computer scientist, sending the command to 1,024 little ’bots simultaneously via an infrared light. The robots begin to blink at one another, and then gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. “Now form the letter K.”

The “K” stands for Kilobots, the name given to these extremely simple robots, each just a few centimeters across, standing on three pinlike legs. Instead of one highly complex robot, a “kilo” of robots collaborate, providing a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors.

Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or 1,000 starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse. To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

This self-organizing swarm was created in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The advance is described in the August 15 issue of Science.

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