Meet the megabots – how scientists turned robots into a swarm

Researchers have discovered how to make one robot “the brain” of the others. 

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Alexa is an automated butler that tells you what the weather is like and gives you the film showing times. Roomba is a robot that can clean your floors (and provide entertainment). They are designed to have a harmonious relationship with their human owner. But imagine if you accidentally step on your Roomba one day, or get frustrated if Alexa doesn't recognise your question. For now, it seems like those actions might have no consequences, except you venting your rage. 

But in future, you might watch your words. According to recent research from Nature Communications, it’s entirely possible that in the future, all those autonomous robots could merge together to form one kind of megabot, capable of carrying out commands and actions as a cohesive whole.

Researchers from three different centres in Lisbon, Brussels and Lausanne were able to effectively program very simple robots to be able to move together, reminiscent of a swarm of bees. This study opened the door for future, mildly terrifying possibilities, like weaponised robots being used to disperse tear gas through huge groups of people.  

Robotic units have been seen before. Programmers have been able to put robotic units together to form a “megabot” of sorts – think putting Wall-E and R2-D2 together. But if you wanted that hybrid to do something, you would have to reprogramme the robots individually, which is trickier than it seems. A merged Wall-E and R2-D2 wouldn’t really be able to do much, because the robots do not share a central unit, like a brain.

Over the course of 10 years, the researchers from three different countries worked together to build a megabot. This meant finding a way to create a mergeable nervous system that would enable modular robots to act as one, the first of its kind. 

As shown in this video, under this system, one of the smaller robotic units touches another one, and a mechanism will make one of  the robotic units will surrender its authority to the other one, and so on. The “winner” will become the brain of the two units, and so on until those smaller robots become a bigger swarm.

Pointing an LED light at one swarm of robots will make the whole group move. It designates one unit, which glows red, as the “brain unit” and enables it to co-ordinate the action of other robotic units, which glow blue.  But as the swarm splits apart, each individual unit then carries that same knowledge and processing ability to coordinate the censors and actuators of the robotic units. If a brain unit develops a fault, the other components can come together to disengage the faulty unit.

This study is only a baby step in the creation of megabots. The robots used in this study were not the complex, almost human-like robots we’re used to seeing in pop culture, but basic models with relatively uncomplicated “robot nervous systems”.Watching these robots bump into each other and light up doesn’t really invoke the same fear as the popular images of megabots like the Decepticons tearing up everything in their sight. 

As with most other investigations into emerging technologies, the results of the study are exciting. However, the implications might be cause for alarm. Creating a mergeable nervous system for robots is completely unprecedented. It could open the door for all kinds of other robotic developments that might not be as easy to regulate. 

Programming robots to merge nervous systems together was the most probable way to achieve the researchers' end goal. The other way to develop working megabots would be to code robots to function like “higher order “ animals. "Higher order" animals would refer to beings such as ourselves. We respond to stimuli based on the context we’re gaining information in, and then work together in groups to carry out tasks.

That requires the ability to "think" autonomously for robots, which remains years away at least. But if that breakthrough occurs, it's possible to imagine sex robots that turn murderous, or co-ordinated explosive robots, of the kind already sent to warzones. If that were the case, a swarm of Roombas would be the least of our problems. 

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

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