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Biotech Technology

The Swarmbots Are Coming 176

Roland Piquepaille writes "For its latest issue, Wired Magazine asked several experts to tell us how the convergence between technology and biology was transforming their respective fields, from transportation to art, and even redefining life as we know it. In this special report, Living Machines, you'll discover that the nonliving world is very much alive. This summary is focused on one of the seven articles, which talks about ant algorithms and swarmbots. "Typically, a swarm bot is a collection of simple robots (s-bots) that self-organize according to algorithms inspired by the bridge-building and task-allocation activities of ants." And ant algorithms are used today to solve human problems especially in distribution and logistics."
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The Swarmbots Are Coming

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  • by jiffah ( 685832 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:29PM (#8182554)
    and we all eventually become batteries after we scorch the sky...
    • Well, I feel safe for now, as long as they're just doing ant algorithms.

      It's when they start algoritms for big, muscular Austrian men with deep accents [] that I'll be scared.

      Very scared.

    • Re:yeah yeah .... (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      that was so stupid.
      Neo made it high enough to see blue sky and sun.
      why can't the stupiud bots just build a stupid tower up a few thousand feet with a stupid microwave reciever, and launch a stupid satellite to collect solar power and beam it by mircowave to the tower which then transmists it by cable to the ground? Huh? Stupid machines.
      • And why did they use humans? Why not breed cattle or some other beast, and kill all the humans?
        • Re:yeah yeah .... (Score:2, Interesting)

          by hoggoth ( 414195 )
          > And why did they use humans? Why not breed cattle or some other beast, and kill all the humans?

          Because they are smart enough to know they may have missed some key element in their own design (ie: an evolutionary dead end) and that some day in the far future they may need humans for some unforseen circumstance.
          It's all about genetic diversity, baby.
          Same reason we want to save the rainforest now.
          Let's hope the machines do a better job saving us than we did with the rainforest.
          • Re:yeah yeah .... (Score:3, Interesting)

            by xmedar ( 55856 )
            The machines cannot be randomly creative as humans are, while The Architect is able to organise logically the Oracle requires The One to be her randomness by proxy as she is not capable of it herself, this is emphasised many times, e.g.

            a) Neo's boss is Mr Rhineheart a reference to Luke Rhineheart who wrote The Dice Man back in the 70s, a book about a man who makes all his choices randomly by throwing a dice.

            b) when fighting Morpheus says adaptation is not Neos problem, as Neo is only adapting within the p
          • Holy shit, +10 insightful!

            I feel dumb not to have thought of this myself, but then again so should the Wachowkis. The first alternate plausible explanation I've seen for the Matrix, none of this stupid battery bullshit.
        • and kill all the humans?

          Kill all humans... kill all humans *snore* kill all humans...

          Hey sexy mama! ... Wanna kill all humans?
  • Paul Revere couldn't have said it any better.
  • by tcopeland ( 32225 ) * <> on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:30PM (#8182562) Homepage
    ...including ant algorithms, simulated annealing, and fuzzy logic is M. Tim Jones' AI Application Programming [].

    The examples are especially helpful; they're written in nice portable C. I've been working on a little project to translate them to Ruby []; porting notes and Gnuplot charts and such are here [] and the code for the Ant Algorithm translation is here [].
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:30PM (#8182564)
    Swarmbots really byte.
  • by G3ckoG33k ( 647276 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:31PM (#8182577)
    Also - here is a brick. What did the house look like?

    Internet, Linux, Groklaw!

    Ant people!
  • Non-news (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:31PM (#8182583)
    you'll discover that the nonliving world is very much alive

    We all know that. []
  • Ant reference (Score:5, Informative)

    by IchBinDasWalross ( 720916 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:32PM (#8182591)
    Mute Filesharing [] is one of the projects talking about ant technology, with a pretty thorough description [] of how they use AntTech.
  • lasers (Score:3, Funny)

    by bucklesl ( 73547 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:32PM (#8182595) Homepage
    Cool, I'll finally be able to get an ant with a laser without cheating. The spiders better watch out!
  • bringing Prey in the picture here to demonstrate this technology is rather non-scientific ?
  • Imagine... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:33PM (#8182603)
    ...a Beowulf cluster of swarmbots could really fuck up a picnic all while processing an assload of seti@home workunits.
  • by iminplaya ( 723125 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:35PM (#8182623) Journal
    Life isn't the exception, but the rule.

    All you have to do is look at all the weeds that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk to come to that conclusion :-)
  • It goes to show you (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ill_mango ( 686617 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:38PM (#8182649)
    How computers can work together better than humans.

    Human nature makes us think of the individual before society as a whole. We could probably accomplish a whole lot more if we were all mindless drones, doing what had to be done to finish our jobs.

    Of course there would be no fun in that, so luckily we have swarmbots.

    I am interested to see the applications of these bad boys in the future.
    • by bloxnet ( 637785 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:50PM (#8182767)
      I would have to respectfully disagree with your option in regards to humans working better as a group.

      I have often felt that the individualistic drive, and in turn the resulting competition, conflicts, and all other associated factors have been one of the reasons why we (the human race) have been able to innovate in so many various fields at almost exponential rates.

      When you have a mass of like minded, same goal-oriented individuals, the goal of outdoing someone working on the same area for personal recognition, or other persona gains (monetary) is truly a motivator that trumps cooperation without vision.

      Good examples are things like the arms races, competing tech companies, etc, etc. These types of conflict or competition-oriented environments almost demand that innovation, invention, and extremely rapid creative thinking and development occur in order to stay in the running or at the top. Plus the motivation that someone else is always trying to take your place once you are "the best" helps keep people sharp as well.

      I think a society of mindless drones would not have been much more advanced that we were whenever our species first started forming communities...some things would have developed over time, but I doubt at the pace that we have and continue to see today.
      • Well then, we could always head towards a Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) scenario where we have the genetically predispositioned intellectuals doing the thinking and mindless drones doing the grunt work.

        About competetive-oriented environments, they may have done well in your examples, but as problems and solutions become more complex, they may become too much for a single person to solve. Eventually, problems may get so complex that it'll take the brain-power of a a few people working together to solve t
      • Comparing humans to individual ants doesn't make any sense. Individual ants do not have a drive to procreate, since they are sterile. Only sexually viable ants are in any way comparable to humans in terms of individualism vs. collectivism. And if anyone on either side thinks human motivations are significantly better or worse modulated than animals in terms of individualism & collectivism, you're wrong. They're the same.

        I would also point out that y'all Randians tend to frequently ignore situations in
    • We could probably accomplish a whole lot more if we were all mindless drones, doing what had to be done to finish our jobs.
      Then why are we at the top of the food chain?
    • Don't get too excited, since when has a "swarm" of anything been a good thing? I'm sure as sh*t that this will be a military dream come true. How hard would it be to shoot down 10,000 nanobot's using ordinary arms?
      • Well then we'll need nanosoldiers with nanoguns and nanogrenades. And some nanotanks, nanoplanes and nanonukes too. Come to think of it, if everything was nano, that would really cut down on over-population and food shortages and stuff. But in all seriousness, I think explosives would work well against a swarm of tiny machines.
    • Which is why ants really do rule the planet and we're they're unwitting dupes.

      I for one..
      wait! aren't *humans* the overlords ?
    • We could probably accomplish a whole lot more if we were all mindless drones, doing what had to be done to finish our jobs.

      You haven't interacted much with management, have you? :-)

  • Why does /. keep posting pointers to these summaries? They add absolutely nothing whatsoever to the article.
  • I believe Swarmbots and related technology will have a place in future robotic missions to Mars that will precede human exploration. Spirit and Opportunity are independent explorers but future missions will (should) involve specialised rover that will cooperate with each other in mining, materials processing, construction, scientific analysis and exploration.
    • How about a constructor bot, a pile of Lego Mindstorms modules, and a whole heap of bricks? I don't see why that wouldn't work, I used to build space probes out of Lego all the time! :)

      Mind you, we'd better make sure that there's no life on Mars before dumping a Lego ant farm on it.

  • It never ceases to amaze me how someone with a functioning brain can make the insipid leap to conclude that a friggin' algorithm is a living thing.
    Either the authors are just pimping themselves or are entertaining some serious grandious god-like delusions.
    No Virginia, there are no living ai or robots.
    • Re:Living? Hardly. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:50PM (#8182766)
      It never ceases to amaze me how someone with a functioning brain can make the insipid leap to conclude that a friggin' algorithm is a living thing.

      This comment you made just proves that you've never really thought of the question.

      The question is: what defines something as alive or inert? the boundary has always been fuzzy, and endless philosophical debates on the subject have been raging for centuries and still do to this day, albeit with a little more material to try to answer it.

      The short of it is: the conventional wisdom would be to define something alive as (1) performing some function, however trivial (i.e. transforming something into something else) and (2) being able to reproduce itself (from full sexual reproduction down to simple mitosis). The problem with that definition is that virii wouldn't count as being alive (they don't reproduce or perform anything without having invaded a host), and virii are usually considered the smallest thing that can be said alive.

      If you extend the definition to encompass biological virii, you start defining computer ones as alive too. They, on the other hand, are usually considered "inert" (well, not alive).

      etc etc...

      So you see, it's not as easy as you might think... I invite you to do research on the subject before posting inflamatory comments.
      • Re:Living? Hardly. (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I find more inflammatory the claim itself that algorithms are alive, lacking a definition of "alive". The so-called inflammatory attack basically just pointed out that you cannot proclaim simultaneously that 1) "life is too complicated to define" and 2) "algorithms are alive because they make these pretty pictures".

        And I say this having done research in Artificial Life (rightfully called the world's first and only fact-free science) and having thought about the question plenty. I personally believe in the
        • I find more inflammatory the claim itself that algorithms are alive, lacking a definition of "alive"

          I did some work on AIs too, and I don't have a particular problem conceiving that a computer program could be considered alive. "Being alive", while having no proper definition, is something people know instinctively, but the human being gets this categorization instinct from its biological experience and past.

          If you define the environment as computers and networks, perhaps not simple virii, but more compl
      • But you can only go so far thinking yourself a great philosopher before even children start to think you're a fool.

        I agree with the original poster, the ideas laid out in this article are pretty far fetched.
        • Yes, the world being flat and the sun orbiting it were pretty obvious ideas in the past, and people who thought differently at the time were also taken for fools by childrens (and their parents, and their church).

          You don't need to be a great philosopher to consider far-fetched ideas, you just need to be open-minded.
          • I believe I do approach this with an open mind. But an open mind can still disagree in its final judgement.

            My thought process went something like:
            Ok, maybe we can redefine life. But where does it stop? Can anything that affects anything else be considered life? No. (an arbitrary judgement on my part. But it has to be done at some point.) So I decided there has to be some reasonable threshold used to judge so that we don't just start thinking everything is alive. After all, every word has an arbitrary
    • Re:Living? Hardly. (Score:2, Interesting)

      by drinkypoo ( 153816 )
      It never ceases to amaze me how someone with a functioning brain can make the assumption that we're more than just a collection of algorithms and their end results.
  • In the article they talk about emergence:
    EMERGENCE describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from innumerable interactions between independent parts.
    Does anyone know more about this? How do people study it, what parameters are important, etc... I'm curious.
  • Anyone have a pointer to a swarming algorithm that uses interval arithmetic to help reduce anomalies in behavior, etc.?
  • um... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Savatte ( 111615 )
    Typically, a swarm bot is a collection of simple robots (s-bots) that self-organize according to algorithms inspired by the bridge-building and task-allocation activities of ants

    So they've created artificially intelligent managers. Well I guess this is better than the real thing.
  • The fascination with miniature robotics really amuses me, with its extremely costly and seemingly pointless projects. I know theyre not pointless/useless, but I'd think theyd get a better public response if they were building larger-scale, more prototype-like systems that had an end result. As opposed to the classic (in my mind) tiny mouse robot that followed around light sources.
    Although I suppose micronizing is where to be...if you plan to sell your immediate research.
    • Home robotics will not take off until someone sells a quality sexbot. I'm not kidding. Pr0n drove the initial sales of the VCR market. It's driving the Internet even if no one wants to admit it. The inital wave of VR games died out because people don't want to put on a dorky helmet viewer without more payoff than shooting at blocky robots, and the cost per game was usually the same as a blow from a crack whore.

      One of the most successful and well known drugs in the world is Viagra.

      Sex sells everything, a

  • by danaan ( 728990 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:42PM (#8182698)
    I'm sorry, but I cringe every time I see the magazine Wired mentioned along with technology prediction and even current analysis of emerging products. Wired has been a valuable cheerleader of the technology boom, but they have almost without fail fallen for the unexamined hype.

    This reached its peak with the "Push" edition of the magazine, which you will no doubt remember if you were a subscriber/reader at the time. The technology never really made that much sense, certanly not in the "world-changing" ways they were talking about at the time. Add in the "new economy", those Cue-Cat scanners and the (again) world changing supposed effects of satellite phones (just to name a few off the top of my head) and Wired has quickly become the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover curse.

    Woe to any futurologist or technologist that should find themselves prognosticating within the pages of Wired!
    • You have to admit that they do at least pique your interest. I love reading Wired articles, because even though I know they aren't always as spot-on as some other sources, at least in my mind I am always thinking "Cool!" when I read an article. They show me what COULD be possible with today's technology and a bit of work, and I think that they fill that job quite well.
    • The 'Push' issue was the definitive end of Wired's relevance. I wish I could go back in time and show the author how the world has changed now that porn ads are 'pushed' onto the desktop and spyware 'pushed' into the registry....

      Then I would give the aforementioned author the thrashing of a lifetime.


    • Magazines always have their hobby-horses. Remember all the flying cars in Popular Science? The monster flying wing planes? Electro-jet hover platforms a la Dick Tracy?

      Stuff like that never really happens the way they say. What? The sig? No, the triphibian car only flies "over water".

      Besides, I thought that Wired jumped the shark in the first year.

    • Whatever dude, I use PointCast every day!
    • by Anonymous Coward
      > Woe to any futurologist or technologist that
      > should find themselves prognosticating within the
      > pages of Wired!

      True, Wired has gone steadily downhill since Conde nast bought it years ago.

      It's funny how technology trends come and go. Wasn't artificial life, networks and 'convergent' behaviour was all the rage back in the late early 90s? Steven Levy and others predicted we would soon evolve AI (even consciousness) using genetic algorithms.

      Christopher Meyer is really a business consultant who i
  • Smart Dust (Score:5, Informative)

    by pararox ( 706523 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:43PM (#8182702)
    This reminds me of an article in the new "Innovators Section" as seen in Time magazine (January 12th '04 edition).

    Essentially, it discusses Kris Pister who developed Smart Dust - a wireless network of sensors, called motes. Each mote has a chip about the size of a grain of rice that detects and records things like termperature and motion at its location. The motes have minisule radio transmitters that talk to otehr motes. With a single network of 10,000 motes, the upper limit, you could cover some 9 sq. miles - and get information about each point along the way!

    Anyway, here's a brief description: []

    Here is the Dust, Inc. homepage:

    Frightening technology in many respects, but I can't help but smile at the thought of the brilliance behind it all.

  • by BigZaphod ( 12942 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:44PM (#8182713) Homepage
    The cow [] has all sorts of natural patterns that could aid us. Or what about chickens? We wouldn't want to forget about the utility of pecking at problems until they go away, would we?
  • "PREY"... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Vanguard(DC) ( 203158 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:45PM (#8182727)
    there ARE actually a few writers of fiction who dedicate alot of time to great research on REAL technologies, then apply it to ifcitonal scenerios.

    Crichton is one of those. As is Dan Brown, Robin Cook, Tom Clancy...etc etc.

    Go check out "Prey," and it will introduce you to this technology in a "fun way," and even introduce you to the inherent risks and problems we face as these technologies emerge.

    with all of these tech/spec guides for work, it's nice to dumb it down with a novel every week or so! What I like to do is read one, then research the techonologies mentioned, and try to determine if they are Sci-Fi, or the real deal. Reading them is kinda like brainstorming, and gives me plenty of random knowledge ideas for me to go Google-crazy with!

    try it sometime...

    • Re:"PREY"... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by DR SoB ( 749180 )
      This is very true. IMHO once the ants deal with Prey, even though they have not been programmed to in any way, that will be real AI. AI is the ability to make decisions without ever having dealt with the scenerio before. An ant creating a "city" for example, isn't AI at all, it's good programming, yes, but not AI. If you suddenly add Prey to the equation and the ants learn ways to deal with said prey (evolution people!) then THAT would be true AI, and I feel we are still MINIMUM 5 years from this poin
    • I just realized that you already mentioned Dan Brown but
      • The Da Vinci Code


      • Angels & Demons

      are such good books that I had to mention it. If you have any interest in symbollogy, the history of Catholicism, the death of the mother goddess with the advent of the religions of the book I strongly suggest reading those two books. They're very entertaining to read with interesting characters and a good story with a ton of historical information. Here's a little tidbit, go search for Da Vinci's "Last Sup

  • by NixLuver ( 693391 ) <stwhite@kc h e r e t i c . c om> on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:46PM (#8182735) Homepage Journal
    None of this should surprise us. As time goes on we learn that our categorical views of the world are mere cognitive conveniences. The unit of life is the cell, not the organism - you have cells that can live outside your body, if provided with the proper oxygen and food. The fact that we see a person rather than a collection of single celled symbiotic organisms reflects the bias of our cognition, not some universally correct perception of the cosmos.

    I think that we will find 'living systems' everywhere we look, once we overcome the bias of the pattern matchers in our heads that make us think that our biases are the laws of the Universe.

    • I don't think our "pattern matchers" and "bias of cognition" are all that innacurate. I disagree with the idea that everything is relative. I beleive there are some absolutes and universal absolutes in the universe.

      When you say we might find 'living systems' everywhere we look, I think that's quite a stretch, and that there really is a difference between this type of contrived cooperation, and actual, beautiful life.

      Artificial intelligence would have to make astounding advancements to even begin to b
      • I beleive there are some absolutes and universal absolutes in the universe.

        I'd be very interested in what means or processes you use to derive these absolutes and universal absolutes, and what the difference is between them.

        • I'd be very interested in what means or processes you use to derive these absolutes and universal absolutes, and what the difference is between them.

          First of all, I sound like an idiot for not proofreading the quote you used!

          In answer to your question: aside from religious beliefs, which I take it you wouldn't appreciate, there are several. The idea of temperature, size/length, and energy used to all be considered rather relative. More advancements have shown certain limits and constants that put th
    • ...collection of single celled symbiotic organisms...

      Jelly fish are often decsribed this way. I like to think they're pretty much like other animals, but their "nervous system" is a bit more decentralized.
  • by tsa ( 15680 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:51PM (#8182779) Homepage
    Often I hear people talking about their robots on TV, and they say that their robots are about as intelligent as a bee or wasp. But if I compare the behaviour of a bee or wasp or whatever insect to those footballing robots I see on TV I'm not so sure. For instance you have wasps that make a hole in the ground, fly away to find some insect larva, bring it to their hole, sedate the larva, lay an egg in it, put it in the hole and close the hole. To be able to do this it must have a general idea about what a hole in the ground is and how to make it. When it is born it cannot know exactly where to make the hole because it has to find a suitable place. So how does the wasp decide where to make the hole? And it must have a pretty good memory too, to be able to find the hole back after some flying around. If you compare this behaviour of a tiny wasp to the robots we have playing football or driving around on Mars (or vacuuming our living room for that matter) I think we still have a long long way to go. This is a very interesting subject and sometimes I envy people that are just now deciding what to study :-) I'm too old to start with this now.
    • They're just saying that their robot has the processing power of a bee or a wasp. Which may be true. However, the bee or wasp has had millions of years to perfect it's programming.

      The software is lacking. The robotics are lacking. But not the raw calculations per second.
    • You've already got some responses, but I will just add an example. It's from "The Selfish Gene" by R. Dawnkins, a great book, BTW. Beens often have the ability to find infected larvaes, remove them from their cells and throw away from the hive. You assume they have an "idea" of how a sick larvae is different from a healthy one, what a cell is, how to remove them and what to do. But it turns out that this seemingly complex behaviour consists of several simple subroutings, hardcoded into their genome. One gen
  • by blueZ3 ( 744446 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @04:56PM (#8182811) Homepage
    One sentence killed the authority of the article...

    Similarly, weather develops from the mixing of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other... molecules

    What? Weather is all about energy, and is powered by the sun. Highs and lows are all about temperature, not the balance of elements. Mixing of elements has little to do with weather.


    • I am also aghast at this meteorological baloney.

      Differential heating sets up temperature gradients on the earth surfaces which produce pressure disparities that drive circulation. Although water vapour is important in defining system behaviour its influence arises from the storage and transport of latent heat. The other species play minor roles with regards to heating.
  • I give the now-obligatory but wholly sincere greetings to our new teeny tiny robotic overlords.
  • by llebegue ( 40129 ) on Wednesday February 04, 2004 @05:03PM (#8182866) Homepage
    If you want to see some cool demonstration of ant behavior algorithm check this web site Eurobios []
    • The game is hard to find, cuz the sites done in flash. Go to 'complexity science' then 'tools' then click where it says 'click here' go to 'ant algorithms' in the pulldown menu, then click where it says 'click here'. Its an awesome tool, and really fun to play with. Try some signal strength tests.

  • bittorrent (Score:2, Informative)

    by Pzykotic ( 72530 )
    haha so wait, this is like the organic version of bittorrent?

    send 10000 of these things to take a tiny piece of something and then they can rebuild it! mwahaha!

    bring one.... one cow! go swarmbots!

    maybe my ideas should be more gregarious, but eh. I'm selfish.
  • Typically, a swarm bot is a collection of simple robots (s-bots) that self-organize according to algorithms inspired by the bridge-building and task-allocation activities of ants. And ant algorithms are used today to solve human problems especially in distribution and logistics.

    Typically, a swarm mod (in other words - slash-bot) is a collection of simple mods (s-mods) that self-organize according to algorithms inspired by the karma rules, with addition of meta-moderation rules. And they are used today to

  • The wizards of Discworld have built a computer named Hex that is powered by Ants, with bees being used for long-term information storage. Was he just lucky or 8 years ahead of the curve?
  • by ( 460897 ) on Thursday February 05, 2004 @06:43AM (#8187715) Homepage

    I'm one of the Swarmbot developper. I have been in charge of porting Linux to the motherboard of thwe s-bot as well as writing its system software. Let's have some interesting data about the s-bot :
    • 9 degrees of freedom (2 wheels, turret rotation, elevation of gripper (can lift another s-bot), gripper (have 1.5 kg of pressure), mobile arm (3 dof), mobile gripper)
    • 19 IR sensors (15 around, 4 bottom)
    • 2D camera
    • 4 microphones, 2 loudspeakers
    • light ring (8 RGB) and light sensors (8)
    • torque and speed sensors on major dof
    • accelerometer and structural deformation sensors
    • 2 temperature and humidity sensors
    • 13 PIC uC for local computation
    • One homemade 400 MHz X-Scale CPU board
    • Wifi
    • 700 g, 2 hours autonomy

    Direct links : [] s/index.php []

    Have a nice day,


"I will make no bargains with terrorist hardware." -- Peter da Silva