Remember Michael Crichton's science-fiction novel, "Prey"? Well, researchers at the University of York have investigated large swarms of up to 10,000 miniature robots which can work together to form a single, artificial life form. The multi-robot approach to artificial intelligence is a relatively new one, and has developed from studies of the swarm behavior of social insects such as ants.
Swarm robotics is a field of study based on the supposition that simple, individual robots can interact and collaborate to form a single artificial organism with more advanced group intelligence.
As a part of an international collaboration dubbed the "Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms" project, or "Symbrion" for short, researchers are developing an artificial immune system which can protect both the individual robots that form part of a swarm, as well as the larger, collective organism.
The aim of the project is to develop the novel principles behind the ways in which robots can evolve and work together in large 'swarms' so that - eventually - these can be applied to real-world applications. The swarms of robots are capable of forming themselves into a 'symbiotic artificial organism' and collectively interacting with the physical world using sensors.
The multi-robot organisms will be made up of large-scale swarms of robots, each slightly larger than a sugar cube, which can dock with each other and share energy and computing resources within a single artificial-life-form. The organisms will also be able to manage their own hardware and software, they will be self-healing and self organizing.
Professor Alan Winfield, a member of the project team, explains, "A future application of this technology might be for example where a Symbrion swarm could be released into a collapsed building following an earthquake, and they could form themselves into teams searching for survivors or to lift rubble off stranded people. Some robots might form a chain allowing rescue workers to communicate with survivors while others assemble themselves into a 'medicine bot' to give first aid.
"While this scenario is one which is still some way into the future, the project we are working on will hopefully bring these possibilities closer. The robots have functionality on their own, but they can also combine together or adapt and change as the situation requires. The individual robots won't change physically, but they will adapt and evolve their functionally.
"Once the robots come together they will be more versatile - like a colony of cells such as those found in a jelly fish or a sponge. The different cells (robots) will cooperate to create the larger organism. In a sponge even if there is damage to some parts, the overall organism still survives.
"In this way the artificial robotic organisms might in theory become self-configuring, self-healing, and self-optimizing from both hardware and software perspectives."
"The aim of the project is to develop the novel principles behind all this, so that we will be able to develop extremely adaptive, evolve-able and scalable robotic systems. In addition we hope our research will help to develop robot organisms that can adapt without human supervision and for new and useful, perhaps unforeseen, functionality to emerge. A part of the research will also be to write the rules that will ensure that emerging robot functions are beneficial."
Let's just hope that future swarms never become angry with their human creators.