The Two-Way
12:15 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

Do Not Fear This Giant Robot Swarm

Originally published on Fri August 15, 2014 5:46 am

Harvard roboticist Mike Rubenstein thought he was being clever when he came up with the name for the 1,024 little robots he built. He's into computers, so he thought of kilobytes and named them kilobots.

"Unfortunately, it sounds like they're 'killerbots,' which ... we don't intend for them to be killing anyone," Rubenstein says.

Despite the branding problem, his robot swarm is actually pretty harmless.

"I think the only way they could hurt you is if you tried to eat them," Rubenstein says. They're tiny, and they don't have spinning claws or death rays.

"They're a little bit bigger than a quarter, and they stand off the table with three little metal legs," he says. That's how they move. The little legs vibrate, and off the robot goes, something like a vibrating cellphone wobbling across a table.

Each kilobot also has a battery, and a sensor so it knows where it is relative to the others. They were built by hand, which required months of monotonous soldering by Rubenstein's lab (he refers to the tedious sessions as "robot assembly parties").

Individually they are a little boring — what makes these kilobots so cool is what they can do together. Rubenstein developed a program where he can draw a shape on a computer, the robots receive the pattern wirelessly, and then they scoot around to make it. It takes hours for them to shuffle into the right shape, and it doesn't always go smoothly.

"Sometimes a very slow robot will have a bunch of other robots get stuck behind it in a traffic jam," he says.

But eventually these little robots do organize themselves.

"We ran two experiments with a thousand robots, and they both formed the shape correctly," he says. "The shape is slightly warped, but it's very recognizable as the desired shape."

It's by far the largest robot collective ever built, according to Roderich Gross, a researcher at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. "There have been many swarms so far, but they were typically composed of 20 to 50 robots," he says.

It's the technology that allows all the robots to work together that Gross finds impressive. Just switching on 100 robots by hand would take forever, but the kilobots can be turned on all at once. They can orient relative to each other, and compensate for broken comrades.

Robots like these could eventually perform all sorts of jobs. Gross thinks they might be able to monitor a city's environment, in order to tell when pollution is getting out of control. Rubenstein envisions a time when robots can join up to form tools. Self-forming robo-tools could be useful for long space journeys, where you don't want to lug a bunch of different equipment with you.

All of those applications are a way down the road. Rubenstein says his next swarm will still be pretty basic, and harmless. And he's trying to find a less kill-y sounding name for them: "The pleasant group of robots ... the not-dangerous-robots whatsoever," he muses.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What you're about to hear may sound like your radio acting up, but it's actually a robot invasion. That's what happens when more than a thousand little machines are marching together. The researchers who built this robot swarm describe it in today's issue of the journal "Science." NPR's Geoff Brumfiel assures us that we don't need to fear the swarm - at least not yet.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Harvard roboticist Mike Rubenstein thought he was being clever when he came up with the name for his 1,024 robots. He's into computers so he thought of kilobytes and named them kilobots.

MIKE RUBENSTEIN: Unfortunately it sounds like they're killer bots which - we don't intend for them to be killing anyone.

BRUMFIEL: Despite the terrible branding, he promises they're completely harmless

RUBENSTEIN: I think the only way they could hurt you is if you tried to eat them. They're about the size of - a little bit bigger than a quarter, and they stand off the table with three little metal legs.

BRUMFIEL: And that's how they move. The little legs vibrate and off the robot goes.

RUBENSTEIN: Maybe you've seen it when - if you put your cell phone on the table and you get a call and it rings, the cell phone actually shakes a little bit and shuffles along the table.

BRUMFIEL: Each kilobot also has a battery and a sensor so it knows where it is relative to the others. They were all built by hand which took his lab months of what Rubenstein calls robot assembly parties.

RUBENSTEIN: A bunch of people sitting around doing a very tedious, monotonous task repetitively.

BRUMFIEL: That doesn't sound like a party.

RUBENSTEIN: There was some music, which helps. (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: They may be boring to build, but what makes these kilobots so cool is what they can do together. Rubenstein has developed a program where he can draw any shape on a computer. The robots receive the pattern wirelessly, and then scoot around to make it. It takes hours to shuffle into the right shape, and it doesn't always go smoothly

RUBENSTEIN: Sometimes a very slow robot will have a bunch of other robots get stuck behind it in a traffic jam.

BRUMFIEL: But eventually, these little robots do find their way.

RUBENSTEIN: We ran two experiments with a thousand robots, and they both formed the shape correctly. And when I say correctly, the shape is slightly warped but it's very recognizable as the desired shape.

BRUMFIEL: What, ultimately, do you hope these killer bots can do?

RUBENSTEIN: The kilobots? (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Oh, kilobots - right.

RUBENSTEIN: The hope is that they can actually form useful shapes. So if you want a wrench you can tell the robots to form a wrench for you, and then you can use that wrench to turn a socket or something.

BRUMFIEL: Self-forming robo-tools could be useful for long space journeys where you don't want to lug a bunch of different equipment with you. All that's a ways down the road. Rubenstein says his next warm will still be pretty basic and harmless. And he's thinking of calling them something different.

RUBENSTEIN: The pleasant group of robots - the not dangerous robots whatsoever.

BRUMFIEL: Maybe it'll come to him while he's putting together the next thousand. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.