Teamwork in humans is inspiring. Teamwork in highly-coordinated robots is a bit eerie.
Created by artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo of Belgium's Université Libre de Bruxelles, the "Swarmanoid" is a team of specialized robots designed to work together to solve environmental problems.
The team is made up of three separate types of 'bots: hand-bots, eye-bots and foot-bots, each of which serves a specific function. As you likely already guessed, the hand-bot is designed to grasp things and manipulate them, the eye-bot to see things and map out obstacles and the foot-bot provides locomotion.
It sounds simple, almost intuitive, but the actual execution is fascinating. New Scientist offers an example of how a "heterogeneous swarm" of robots might approach our meatspace reality:
When the Swarmanoid is first switched on, it knows nothing about its environment - a series of rooms with magnetic ceilings. One by one, flying eye-bots explore the rooms, searching for the target. Each one anchors itself to the magnetic ceiling once it's almost out of communication range from the other robots.
Once an eye-bot has spied the target, it signals its hanging comrades to activate the foot-bots. These rolling minions form a column from a central bot nest to the target, creating a communication chain for the hand-bot escort team.
Two foot-bots snap onto the hand-bot, escort it to the bookshelf, and release it. Then the hand-bot launches a magnet-tipped string to the ceiling and climbs the side of the bookshelf hand-over-hand, using the line for stability.
After the hand-bot grabs the book, it lets go of the shelf. Suspended by the string, the bot lowers itself gently to the ground.
While the concept of the swarm is nothing new, Dorigo's "Swarmanoid" is one of the best examples to date, and offers a very palpable visual of the idea for those of you not intensely familiar with AI theory. That video embedded at top-right demonstrates all of the concepts you just read about during the team's quest to snatch a book, and more importantly, it offers a glimpse at how borderline-creepy robotic teamwork can be.
There is a level of precision in their movements and decision making processes that just seems unnaturally coordinated. The emotional response in my monkey brain is similar to what I imagine hobbits feel when they first glimpse a giant spider crawling toward them. There's a definite sense of "this thing should not be able to move in that fashion," while at the same time, the rest of my brain is shouting "you're going to die in a horrible way."
Primal terror aside however, this thing is pretty rad, and I would love to see similar 'bot teams employed as live-in firefighters, as Dorigo envisions.