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Even Brainless Robots Can Show Swarm Behavior

Toothbrush heads with vibrating motors exhibit similar behavior to groups of social insects

2 min read
Even Brainless Robots Can Show Swarm Behavior

Bristlebots are robots without sensors or brains that do things that robots without sensors or brains do. As it turns out, this is a lot more than you might expect, since researchers at Harvard have shown that if you stick enough of them in a small space, they self-organize into swarms.

A Bristlebot consists of nothing more than a toothbrush head (a custom 3D-printed one, in this case) hooked up to a pager vibrating motor and battery. You can build one yourself in five minutes for a couple bucks, making this one of the simplest and cheapest robots in existence. It's a little bit surprising, then, that these little guys are good for some serious research.

Roboticists at Harvard decided to stuff a whole bunch of Bristlebots into a small area to see what happened, and even with no brains or sensors, some intelligent-seeming behavior spontaneously manifested itself:

We show that when Bristle-Bots are confi ned to a limited arena with a soft boundary, increasing the density drives a transition from a disordered and uncoordinated motion to organized collective motion either as a swirling cluster or a collective dynamical stasis. This transition is regulated by a single parameter, the relative magnitude of spinning and walking in a single automaton. We explain this using quantitative experiments and simulations that emphasize the role of the agent shape, environment, and con finement via boundaries. Our study shows how the behavioral repertoire of these physically interacting automatons controlled by one parameter translates into the mechanical intelligence of swarms.

The video below illustrates what happens:

So, as the video says, here's the real question now: if robots without brains can exhibit swarm behavior, does that logically mean that every animal that exhibits swarm behavior (including people) must therefore not have any brains? Yeah, I'm fairly certain that that's the way it's got to work.

[ Paper ] via [ Evil Mad Scientist ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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