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Swarms of Solar-Powered Microbots On the Way

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 5 years ago | from the time-to-upgrade-the-fly-swatter dept.

Robotics 119

Mike writes to tell us that Inhabitat has an interesting article, complete with some pretty pictures, about a new solar-powered swarm robot that could be used to collect data and aid in surveillance. "These mini-robots are quite revolutionary, considering that they contain all that's necessary to collect data and relay it back using one single circuit board. In the past single-chip robots have presented significant design and manufacturing challenges due in part to the use of solder as an adhesive. These new microbots use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology. The circuit is then folded into thirds and wrapped around the ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit). On top, a solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk. Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."

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What ? when ? right now ! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29271917)

What ? when ? right now !

Too simple to be able to do much (0)

phyr (586855) | more than 5 years ago | (#29271933)

Wake me up when I'm able to program these in a high level language with a decent amount of memory onboard.

walking and probing tiny crevices is much (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29271993)

much, much

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (5, Informative)

EdZ (755139) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272031)

They're already programmed at a particularly high level: they're swarm robots. Yout don;t give them instructions, you give them goals. Why would you want memory on board anyway when you can just broadcast it back to a central storage device? These are the sensor and manipulator portions of the swarm, they only NEED to sense and manipulate.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

olsmeister (1488789) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272211)

I would at least like enough on board memory to be able to program instructions on how to create more swarm robots...

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (2, Funny)

Jared555 (874152) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273593)

And then they turn into the replicators and wipe out the entire planet.... Some people never learn from TV.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29274405)

Are you kids hugging the TV again?

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

bhartman34 (886109) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273337)

They're already programmed at a particularly high level: they're swarm robots. Yout don;t give them instructions, you give them goals. Why would you want memory on board anyway when you can just broadcast it back to a central storage device?

I would think it would be fairly important to be able to give them instructions, in case you need to, say, over-ride their goals on an impromptu basis.

That is, unless you want uncontrollable, self-motivated bots flying around.

And to address the self-replication idea: I'd rather not be up to my neck in gray goo [wikipedia.org] , but thanks anyway. :)

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

Jared555 (874152) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273633)

One of the 'goals' could be to shut down and/or self destruct.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

bhartman34 (886109) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273759)

Wouldn't you need to override whatever the initial goal was? If you have no instructions, but only goals, you need to have some way to supplant one for the other, don't you? Otherwise, you'd need a way to prioritize them, which, I would think, would involve instructions...

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

BakaHoushi (786009) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274175)

I would think they would supplant goals. Seems to be the easiest way. Otherwise you end up with...

"We're sorry, but we can't let you do that, Dave..."

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

bhartman34 (886109) | more than 4 years ago | (#29275063)

I would think they would supplant goals. Seems to be the easiest way. Otherwise you end up with...

"We're sorry, but we can't let you do that, Dave..."

That's what I think, too. But if you need to supplant goals, then that means you have to:

a) communicate with the bots b) have some way of making sure that your goal overrides theirs

The communication part is easy. But the supplanting part (I would think) would still involve rules rather than goals. You'd need something that says "Stop what you're doing, and follow this goal instead."

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

expat.iain (1337021) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272067)

BASIC and 640k?

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

MrNaz (730548) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272265)

Enough for anybody, really.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

Z80a (971949) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272927)

640k can be plenty a lot for a 8 bit esque thing running basic.

remember 64k was a luxury that time.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (4, Informative)

thisnamestoolong (1584383) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272681)

Wake me up when I'm able to program these in a high level language with a decent amount of memory onboard.

You see, this is the beauty of having a swarm -- you don't need any individual to have a lot of brainpower. We see the same thing in ants (and Red Sox fans), one ant has an IQ barely higher than that of a carrot but is programmed with one simple set of instructions. When millions of creatures with different simple sets of instructions end up bumping into each other and interacting, some extremely complex and "intelligent" behaviors can emerge -- ants build underground cities with temperature control and hydroponic gardens. They keep slaves and livestock. Ants wage large scale war. This is pretty impressive for a creature with only about 100 neurons each, until you realize how little each ant has to do, and that all of the higher level function comes from the millions of minute interactions between individuals, which is often personified as the "hive mind".

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (1)

tedr2 (1502807) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273873)

the bad thing from a programmers point of view is that it is quite difficult to engineer specific swarm behavior.If it was a single machine, it can be programmed effectively using current high level programming language, but how do you program a swarm of microbots to effectively accomplished a task. Note that the power of swarm intelligence is in their emergent behavior. There is not enough study on this part which could facilitate practical use. As someone already wrote, we can only set goals for the swarm and pray..

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (2, Insightful)

inviolet (797804) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274973)

You see, this is the beauty of having a swarm -- you don't need any individual to have a lot of brainpower. We see the same thing in ants (and Red Sox fans), one ant has an IQ barely higher than that of a carrot but is programmed with one simple set of instructions. When millions of creatures with different simple sets of instructions end up bumping into each other and interacting, some extremely complex and "intelligent" behaviors can emerge -- ants build underground cities with temperature control and hydroponic gardens. They keep slaves and livestock. Ants wage large scale war. This is pretty impressive for a creature with only about 100 neurons each, until you realize how little each ant has to do, and that all of the higher level function comes from the millions of minute interactions between individuals, which is often personified as the "hive mind".

Well said.

Have you noticed that human societies also qualify as hive minds? They have epiphenominal patterns that arise due to the interactions between unwitting individuals. Even tiny changes to the interactions (i.e. to the rules) can redound as huge changes downstream. That's why it scares me when anybody wants to tinker with what is so far the wealthiest society in the history of the world.

Re:Too simple to be able to do much (2, Funny)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273445)

By then you'll be all like "Please don't kill me". But it'll be too late, the microbots are going to turn themselves into a humanoid form that can reach into your brain and steal all your memories.

Then you'll just have to sit around until MacGyver gets some bubble gum and tooth picks to save you.

Don't say you weren't warned.

apart from ... (1)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 5 years ago | (#29271935)

solar cell generates power for the robot and delivers 3.6 V to the unit, which is enough for it to walk

... at night, when it's cloudy or indoors

So that rules out a great deal of the times and places where people are. What exactly are the users of these things expecting to spy on?

Re:apart from ... (3, Interesting)

Architect_sasyr (938685) | more than 5 years ago | (#29271987)

I have a solar calculator that works just fine under lights at night (with the dead battery removed). Why couldn't something this small draw enough power from overhead fluro's?

Re:apart from ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272027)

It doesn't look like it can jump over the door step.

Re:apart from ... (1)

wisty (1335733) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272217)

By night, they have enough power to observe you. But not enough to fire their exterminator beams. Great.

Re:apart from ... (1)

umghhh (965931) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272441)

at least we still have a chance for survival although gathering berries or hunting a steak in the darkness might be a challenge as would be distinguishing poisonous from non-poisonous fungi etc so food maybe a problem if they are send to eliminate us (by mistake or intentionally).

We are of course not that far yet but we are already on a path possibly leading us into problems. The question is whether we survive if we are confronted with 'mechanical life' if you will. Funny how Hollywood in its silliness and superficiality always wants us be eliminated by superior race (of machines or aliens) that has complex intelligence (or at least reminds us in some sense which of course is not intelligent then) whereas you do not have to be very smart to eliminate us.

This reminds me of a novel: "Invincible" [wikipedia.org] by Master Stanislaw. He published it first time in 1964. A prophet you might say.

Re:apart from ... (2, Funny)

SEWilco (27983) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273195)

They'll do what they do every night, Pinky.

the swarm is comming (1)

moon3 (1530265) | more than 5 years ago | (#29271941)

kekeke

Re:the swarm is comming (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272025)

Crichton had a novel about this back in '02. Prey [wikipedia.org]

Like all his books, interesting but not necessarily plausible.

Re:the swarm is comming (1)

umghhh (965931) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272783)

I wonder if Crichton read "The Invincible" [wikipedia.org] before he wrote "Prey".

Re:the swarm is comming (1)

BigGerman (541312) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273215)

Prey was about how stupid middle management is ;-)

Re:the swarm is comming (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29274815)

_Every_ Crichton book is about how stupid middle management is.

Re:the swarm is comming (1)

bhartman34 (886109) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273705)

Crichton had a novel about this back in '02. Prey [wikipedia.org]

Like all his books, interesting but not necessarily plausible.

I think his best was The Andromeda Strain, by far. I remember my first time reading it (I was probably around 10 or 11 at the time) wondering whether there was some factual basis for it. It was written in such a documentary way that at times it was hard to tell if it was one of those "based on a true story" kinds of things (at least, when I was that age it was).

I wanted to like Prey the same way, and for a part of the book, I did, but it just became less and less plausible as it went along. I was really left with the sense, at times, that the science got away from him, and he was too interested in writing something people might find exciting. As much as I liked some of his work, sometimes he forgot that for some of us, the science was the exciting part. I'll certainly miss his contribution to the genre, though.

Anyone interested in him, I would probably also recommend The Terminal Man [wikipedia.org] .

Re:the swarm is comming (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29273973)

Memo to self: When reading the section, "Plot Summary" on a Wikipedia article about a book or movie, I should infer the phrase, "Spoiler Alert". Thanks for the turn-on, I'll have to grab The Terminal Man from the library. I've always avoided Chrichton because I've heard way too much criticism about his awkward bridge between science and fantasy - I prefer things firmly one way or the other. Is it blasphemy to admit that I liked the movie version of The Andromeda Strain but never bothered with the book? Oh well, it's close enough to blasphemy for me to go AC.

Re:the swarm is comming (1)

nolifetillpleather (975338) | more than 4 years ago | (#29275191)

Don't worry about it, guys. The EM pulse from some kind of nuclear bomb will kill all the little robots.

Too large (1)

Porchroof (726270) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272019)

It's too large to be a microrobot.

Re:Too large (1)

sadness203 (1539377) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272139)

It's ok, it was part of their scheme to have some funding back in the old day. They didn't know the magic word "Nano". They'll learn it fast when they need more fund. Watch for Swarming solar-powered nanorobot in a close future.

Re:Too large (1)

lxs (131946) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274237)

but it's not cute enough to be called a minibot.

Impressive (3, Interesting)

A. B3ttik (1344591) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272037)

These things look like something right out of a science-fiction movie. I wonder how expensive they are to produce? They look light enough that you could literally spray them from a passing plane to gather intel on a suspicious site.

New grey goo milestone (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272071)

The ultimate way to stop any physical machine nowadays is to cut off its power supply. The ability to configure swarm-based robots that use their own powers is a new milestone at creating a potentially unstoppable force.

Grey-goo requirements checklist:

1. Decentralized: check
2. Self-sustaining: check
3. Adaptable: not yet but can be potentially achieved with sufficiently complex programming
4. Self-replicating: not yet, our last bastion of hope

What a good thing it is that robots can't fsck... yet.

Re:New grey goo milestone (2)

A. B3ttik (1344591) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272105)

The ultimate way to stop any physical machine nowadays is to cut off its power supply.

Let us scorch the skies before it is too late.

Re:New grey goo milestone (1)

Turiko (1259966) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272181)

if the matix thought us anything, that's about the time humanity gets enslaved as power source :(

Re:New grey goo milestone (1)

Big Hairy Ian (1155547) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272635)

Actually if the sequels taught us anything it's that good CGI do not a great movie make /yoda

Re:New grey goo milestone (1)

Turiko (1259966) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273443)

that too, but i meant the original (only? :P) one.

Re:New grey goo milestone (1)

gnick (1211984) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274463)

if the matix thought us anything, that's about the time humanity gets enslaved as power source :(

That bugged the hell out of me with the whole premise, not that I didn't enjoy the movie (pity there were no sequels). What part of "Life is endothermic" don't you understand?!?

Re:New grey goo milestone (5, Insightful)

JJJK (1029630) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272183)

the "grey goo threat" might be something to be considered, but it shouldn't stop us from further exploring micro/nanobots. I'm tired of hearing someone shout "grey goo!" or "skynet!" every time there is some advance in nanotechnology or AI (and I mean the ones who are actually being serious about it). You can't stop the progress in these fields (and you shouldn't, considering all the positive aspects), or just repeat fear-mongering from luddites/attention-whores/sci-fi-writers. Instead, try to understand current research and help to find ways to make these things safe!

Re:New grey goo milestone (3, Interesting)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273461)

I'm tired of hearing someone shout... "skynet!" every time there is some advance in... AI

My fear isn't that machines will become sentient (at least not machines controlled by binary electrical computers), but that people will BELIEVE that these machines, which will be controllable by men, are in fact sentient and grant "machine rights" or some such nonsense.

Re:New grey goo milestone (1)

jeffshoaf (611794) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273743)

But what if Skynet turns out to be made from gray goo?

Dooooooooomed (1)

mcwidget (896077) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272129)

Dear God people!!! Has no-one read PREY!!!?!?!?!!?!!!

Re:Dooooooooomed (1)

EdZ (755139) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272437)

Prey has some.. issues [nanotech-now.com] ... in the "actually related to reality" department.

Dejavu of Gibson's vision (3, Informative)

malbrech (197107) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272147)

Somebody remembers that Gibson novel where exactly these things were made of nano components, and therefore so light that they could fly (suspend would be the more accurate word)?

OK, I 'll give them ten years to get there ...

Re:Dejavu of Gibson's vision (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272189)

Somebody remembers that Gibson novel where exactly these things were made of nano components, and therefore so light that they could fly (suspend would be the more accurate word)?

OK, I 'll give them ten years to get there ...

Wasn't it Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

Re:Dejavu of Gibson's vision (1)

radtea (464814) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272427)

Wasn't it Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

No, it was Stanislaw Lem's "The Invincible".

Re:Dejavu of Gibson's vision (4, Informative)

radtea (464814) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272415)

Somebody remembers that Gibson novel

You're thinking of Stanislaw Lem's "The Invincible", dating from the early 1970's, at least in translation. The original Polish may have been late '60's.

For some reason no one ever cites this book as the source of so many ideas about autonomous swarm robots, which Lem called "synthects" for "synthetic insects", although it predates everyone else's "discovery" of these ideas by decades.

Re:Dejavu of Gibson's vision (1)

inhuman_4 (1294516) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273229)

There was a Michael Creighton book call Prey based on the same idea.

forever (-1, Offtopic)

mixedlove (1629103) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272199)

Interracial relationships . . . Why is that phrase used to describe unions between men and women of different ethnicities? Would you like to experience interracial romance? Go to ******** mixedmingle.com ******** people are looking for passion and lure there!!!

On grey goo (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272209)

Every time I hear the "grey goo" debate I ponder why some people love so much to hypothesize about the potential future without taking as much at a single glimpse at the past and present. The grey goo hypothesis states that, as a result of some technological advancement, there will be a matter that is able to function and replicate by consuming available background resources until all resources are consumed and turned into more grey goo. This position utterly fails to realize that there already is matter that does exactly that. It's called life.

Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind. But the "grey goo" scenario doesn't happen due to a simple natural law of diminishing returns -- as more and more grey goo (or, in our case, life) is produced, the less and less marginal advantage is there at producing more of the same kind. Identical species (or in simpler cases, where there are no "individual specimens", identical biomasses (e.g. mold, grass) first spreads out by consuming the most readily available resource, but as its numbers grow and resources dwindle, it gains less and less marginal advantage at consuming more resources, and becomes its own competitor more than a co-operator. The fact that during the billions of years that life existed on Earth, Earth has not turned into a uniform mass of a single biomatter, utterly destroys the "grey goo" hypothesis.

On top of that, there is this "adaptability" thing. As grey goo spreads more and more, and becomes its own competitor, some strains of grey goo (lets call it blue goo), through trial and error, will function better when instead of cooperating with other grey goo, exploits it, for example by consuming grey goo directly rather than consuming what the grey goo consumes. In turn, the grey goo will now have to modify its behavior to not only consume and replicate but also to defend itself against blue goo. Then we get yellow goo which likewise will consume blue goo. Then we get some violet goo which adapts to the blue-yellow goo rivalry by, for example, becoming poisonous go yellow goo to consume while offering habitat protection to blue goo in exchange for some released energy from what the blue goo consumed.

This sequence goes on and on, until we get an ultimate form (brown goo) that sufficiently adapts to consciously exploit other forms of goo for its own needs, build constructed habitats for itself, wage wars on its own kind, and occasionally debate on whether all brown goo specimens originally evolved from humble grey goo, or whether they were created by some Divine Heavenly Goo instead.

Re:On grey goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272353)

Life already functions in the most optimal way possible

That sounds like Intelligent Design bullshit. Life is full of suboptimal solutions that hardly seem "intelligent", and "God works in mysterious ways" is not an answer that will impress me-

Re:On grey goo (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272413)

Don't confuse the general with the specific, or interpret "optimal" in a different context. Life as a whole has only one objective - preserve itself as efficiently as possible, by maximizing its ability to self-preserve, self-replicate, and adapt to the surrounding environment. This, in fact, is the postulate of natural selection and the theory of evolution (i.e. the complete opposite of intelligent design). This definition of "optimality" doesn't necessarily hold true for any individual specimens (as opposed to species as a whole), and most certainly doesn't necessarily hold true for any other meanings you assign to "optimal" (e.g. living a happy, meaningful, productive, pious, or socially meaningful life means absolutely NOTHING in this context of "optimal")

Re:On grey goo (2, Interesting)

ivan_w (1115485) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272715)

I don't think life has any "Objective". The fact that life forms that self-preserve, replicate and adapt are successful within a time frame doesn't mean there is a "goal". I'd rather term this as a side effect of the chemistry and physics surrounding biological entities.

To me it's like saying that a star (the little flickering lights in the sky and the sun) "goal" is to efficiently balance its energy output to counteract the gravitational force that tends to collapse it. There is no "goal" or "objective" here - just that's the way it is (and if it weren't that way, we wouldn't be here to see it).

The same can be said about the fact the laws of physics are (at a macroscopic level anyway) governed by a 3-space/1-time universe and the right value for the Plank constant (again.. with any other configuration - we wouldn't be here to see it)

--Ivan

Re:On grey goo (2, Interesting)

miasmic (669645) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273241)

For sure I would agree with that, the idea that life exists for a reason or purpose is to me connected to the theory of intelligent design. Life exists and that's all we can say. I think it's commonly misunderstood that natural selection is a process with a purpose. It has one only in effect, at the nuts and bolts level evolution is down to *random* genetic mutations, some of which turn out to be more advantageous than others.

Re:On grey goo (2, Insightful)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272425)

Minor quibble: "Life already functions in the most optimal way possible at consuming energy and replicating more of its own kind." is quite an assertion.

The use of things like rotating bearings and electric current (for transmission of energy) might enable a self replicating machine to operate much more efficiently than life.

Then there are the solar panels that capture much more energy than photosynthesis, while not being made (mostly) out of water (so an artificial tree might be able to just keep its leaves through the winter).

Re:On grey goo (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272603)

Such a machine may well outperform a biological one, but does it do so in the most efficient way? How much energy does a tree consume to grow a leaf? How much energy is required to produce a solar panel? What is the energy and resource requirements to produce a high-quality mechanical moving part that outlasts a biological one?

The core assertion of natural selection is that not the strongest species survive but the most efficient (as well as most adaptable, which is another point in which so far technology trails far behind biology, and there is no theoretical basis to prove (or disprove) that a technological solution can in fact be constructed to be more adaptable than a biological one.

Re:On grey goo (2, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273271)

I was very careful to say that solar panels capture more energy. Any estimate of the overall efficiency of such a machine would come with enormous margins of error.

Re:On grey goo (1)

StuckInSyrup (745480) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272735)

The use of things like rotating bearings and electric current (for transmission of energy) might enable a self replicating machine to operate much more efficiently than life.

I'm not so sure about this. Bacteria use something like a rotating bearing for anchoring the flagellum to the cell membrane. For some reason, this evolutionary feature is absent from eukaryotic organisms (their flagella are undulating, not rotating structures). Maybe they are not so much more effective.

Bearings? They don't need no stinkin' bearings! (3, Insightful)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273575)

I don't see where bearings could give any potential advantage anyways:

- Wheels are a great big joke for transportation outside of paved or relatively smooth surfaces - look at offroad vehicles, they're horrendously inefficient in every way and there's a reason they're not small. To really get around in nature with wheels would take something like a rock crawler, a necessarily large, extremely complicated and inefficient vehicle that requires a lot of skill to use successfully.

- Fuel-burning engines are impractical at very small scales and are relatively maintenance-intensive. ICEs are pretty inefficient and turbines are only practical are fairly large scales.

- And finally the bearings themselves are relatively fragile and maintenance-intensive.

The best chassis a self-replicating autonomous robot could hope for would be a biological body that can heal itself, doesn't need lubrication systems and has limbs for transportation. Maybe a self-replicating nanobot that acts as a pathogen and 'roots' raccoon bodies (agile, opposable thumbs, pretty well-armed between the claws, teeth and other pathogens they're carrying) would be a successful one. Maybe a life cycle where the bot grows like a plant, producing a sweet infected fruit that the raccoon eats, where it infects the brain and grows more "seeds" in the digestive system would work (although it would still need to reproduce with other raccoons, perhaps also passing the bot along as an STD, or the raccoons that aren't attracted to the fruit would have a selective advantage).

A good, feasible compromise would be an insect body facsimile - it could be actuated with hydraulic systems, linear electric motors or artificial muscles, all of which are fairly robust, and it could potentially allow the robot to get itself around much better than a wheeled chassis. Imagine a grasshopper-like body that has the option of crawling or taking a huge leap.

Re:Bearings? They don't need no stinkin' bearings! (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274517)

And yet we set aside horses and paved the world.

Who knows what will motivate such a creature, and how they would prefer to repair themselves (healing has lots of advantages, but ask anybody with bad ankles whether they see any advantages to something that bolts on).

Re:On grey goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272435)

I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

Missing a Point (2, Insightful)

miasmic (669645) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272963)

What you are missing is that life is subject to limitations on the type of resources it can use. Nearly all animals directly need only biomass for food, oxygen and clean water. And with the balanced ecosystem the planet has, the plant kingdom creates the biomass and regenerates 'used' oxygen. A grey goo would not be subject to these limitations. It would probably be able to use several different sources of energy. If animals run out of biomass to eat, they starve to death. Grey goo could foreseeably evolve to be able to, or already be adapted to deriving energy from non-organic chemical processes, literally eating the planet - or be able to proliferate purely from solar energy. It's adaptability in short time frames, instead of over millions of years as with natural life is exactly what makes it such a frightening prospect.

Re:On grey goo (2, Insightful)

bhartman34 (886109) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273949)

I'm not a "gray goo" expert, but I think the hypothesis rests, in part, on the idea that the replication of the "goo" will happen so fast that there won't be time for the kind of genetic diversification you'd need to avoid the gray goo scenario. And that's if the gray goo had the ability to diversify at all.

Think of the gray goo in terms of super-adaptable humans. If humans all of a sudden started multiplying like bacteria (or even close to that pace), you'd get a lot of biodiversity, but you might not get enough diversity to get speciation before Something Really Bad (starvation, pestilence, etc.) happened.

It's the same with the gray goo. The explosion happens so rapidly (in this hypothetical scenario) that the environment and the species are both overwhelmed. It's not such a hard thing to imagine, if you picture it on a smaller scale (e.g., an island).

I don't know that the gray goo scenario means the Earth is literally suffocated by gray goo, either. I think it just means that the gray goo crowds out all other life until there's no life left but goo. But then the goo, in this scenario, would only die if their source of sustenance died. And that's not a given. If you had solar-powered goo, it could go on reproducing until the sun burnt out or went supernova. (I don't particularly recall how scientists now think it's going to die.)

Great! (4, Funny)

Cornwallis (1188489) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272367)

Something else to fly up my nose while riding my bike.

Re:Great! (2, Funny)

jsmiith (1274436) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273485)

Actually, I really doubt one of these could ride your bike. Just saying.

Re:Great! (1)

Cornwallis (1188489) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274371)

OK you win!

oblg. River Tam (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272455)

I think I swallowed a bug...

Vibrating legs (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272505)

Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor.

I understand that there are quite a few videos about on the 'net showing the use of a horizontal vibrating "leg" as a touch sensor. Not that I frequent such sites, you understand.

Isn't anyone going to welcome our tiny swarming ov (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272605)

???

The Outer Limits (1)

eedwardsjr (1327857) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272685)

Sounds like The Outer Limits episode called "Small Friends".

Huh... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29272877)

"... while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."

That's no leg, sweetie.

When will they be put to good use? (3, Interesting)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272915)

Bring the cost down to near nothing, make them self replicating, then foist them off to agriculture. Since they use nice clean energy, they can replace tractors in planting and harvesting. In between those activities, they can tend the crop. Enough of these little dudes can monitor individual plants for disease, then treat or remove affected plants. Monitor and regulate moisture for maximum effect at each plant. Heck, they could even pollinate plants since the honeybee population has been devastated in recent years.

If I had a zillion little microbots or nanobots, I could find a LOT of better uses than spying on my neighbor. My neighbors are pretty damned homely anyway, I don't WANT to watch them doing whatever they do when I can't see them!

Re:When will they be put to good use? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29273499)

Bring the cost down to near nothing, make them self replicating, then foist them off to agriculture. Since they use nice clean energy, they can replace tractors in planting and harvesting.

leaving aside the sci-fiction part "make them self-replicable", theese are small swarm robots. they can't do jobs such as lifting, harvesting or planting. you'd need a much different robot there, and require much more power.
also, bring the cost down to nothing? thoose things can't be bought, they are produced just as an experiment, and you think about costs?
hello, it's 2009, not 2109...

In between those activities, they can tend the crop. Enough of these little dudes can monitor individual plants for disease, then treat or remove affected plants. Monitor and regulate moisture for maximum effect at each plant. Heck, they could even pollinate plants since the honeybee population has been devastated in recent years.

If I had a zillion little microbots or nanobots, I could find a LOT of better uses than spying on my neighbor. My neighbors are pretty damned homely anyway, I don't WANT to watch them doing whatever they do when I can't see them!

you call thoose nanobots?? they're almost 5x5x5mm !
this is just science fiction, come on... let's think more at what can be done with theese in the next 5-10 years, please...

Re:When will they be put to good use? (2, Funny)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273635)

Now there is a solution in search of a problem.

I'm trying to imagine a horde of tiny robots lugging a single ear of corn a few miles to a drop off point, and then I'm picturing a combine harvester harvesting a whole acre every few minutes, while also doing processing!

Likewise blight and disease. It's usually pretty obvious. You could make little machines to eat pests, but nature has been doing it for a lot longer, and the bitch is pretty good at it.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (2, Insightful)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273709)

I'm trying to imagine a horde of tiny robots lugging a single ear of corn a few miles to a drop off point, and then I'm picturing a combine harvester harvesting a whole acre every few minutes, while also doing processing!

Why don't you also picture what is happening beneath the soil! The use of heavy machinery for harvesting creates hardpan, which results in poor drainage, which results in the death of whole classes of biota which make up a significant percentage of the mass of healthy soil. Tilling also produces hardpan. Growing crops as monocultures actually creates pest problems, by eliminating the habitat and protection for beneficial insects and other creatures (e.g. birds and lizards) who also consume harmful pests.

Ants manage to accomplish great feats of engineering and even war by operating in an organized fashion. While we have a long way to go before we build any robot as capable in its purview as a common ant, the concept is still sufficiently applicable to the problem. It is also an important step in achieving the same thing at a true nanoscale. Using arrays of microrobots to harvest crops would permit us to stop planting monocultures; we could in fact re-adopt no-till methods of agriculture which preserve soil diversity and actually lead to the production of more nutritious food! Further, the plants can be grown in guilds in which the plants actually benefit one another, fixing nutrients needed by their companions or providing them shelter or structure, because large mechanical harvesters would be out of the picture.

Likewise blight and disease. It's usually pretty obvious. You could make little machines to eat pests, but nature has been doing it for a lot longer, and the bitch is pretty good at it.

Unfortunately, getting them to stick around doesn't happen when you're growing monocultures and periodically running them over with heavy machinery.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (2, Insightful)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273815)

Disagree. Sure, a combine will leave a pair of wheel ruts that are pretty deep, but that's not remotely enough to call the whole field hardpan, or kill off all the happy bacteria, soil-loosening worms, and biomass that makes a decent growth medium for crops.

There is already a move to re-adopt no-till agriculture. Using macro machinery [google.com] doesn't prohibit that, and using micro-machinery doesn't mean that it's more likely.

Contrast those big ruts with the sort of scorched earth devastation left behind by the kinds of swarm ants that could take down a corn field...That's not a healthy environment either.

I agree vis a vis monocultures, etc, but I think that is a separate issue.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (2, Insightful)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274143)

Actually, there is precious little biomass in our agricultural fields today. Tilling has destroyed it. Go out into any cornfield, wheatfield, whatever. Dig down into the soil, and come up with a handfull of stuff. Examine it with your naked eye, and you'll find - dirt. That's it, just dirt.

Go into a field that has lain fallow for a few years. Dig down, grab a handful and examine it. Worms, bugs, grubs, decaying vegetable matter - life. You don't require a microscope or special instruments to see the difference between the sterile dirt in a cornfield, and the living soil in a fallow field. If you choose to put the stuff under a microscope, the difference only becomes more obvious.

The fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in monoculture fields is deadly to more than those forms of life we intend to control.

Macro machinery may be adaptable to no-till practices, but they aren't going to solve the monoculture environments we have today. As long as monoculture is the rule, the use of chemicals will continue, which negates much of the benefit of no-till.

Obviously, I don't view monoculture and no-till as seperate issues at all.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (0, Flamebait)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274353)

What the hell are you talking about? The issue here is how to harvest a field...The fact that I even brought up no-till at all is a side issue.

Move your soapbox somewhere else.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (2, Insightful)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274811)

"What the hell are you talking about?"

The big picture, is all. The issue is not just harvesting a field, as evidenced from my first post. The issue is caring for the plant, throughout it's life, as well as the soil, and all the rest of the environment that the plant is grown in.

Perhaps you didn't read and comprehend Drinkypoo's post? It's pretty clear that he sees more advantage to micro and/or nanobots than just harvesting without tractors.

Ideally, there wouldn't even be beanfields, cornfields, etc. All of these crops would be grown in the SAME field, along with marigolds and other flowers that attract beneficial insects.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (1)

nasor (690345) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273831)

"Make them self-replicating"??? That's a problem many orders of magnitude more difficult. If we can make tiny robots that can fabricate high-efficiency solar panels, making agriculture easier will be a distant second behind solving our energy problems forever.

Re:When will they be put to good use? (1)

mbone (558574) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274403)

If I had a zillion little microbots or nanobots, I could find a LOT of better uses than spying on my neighbor.

You don't understand how political power works.

Microbots (1)

MistrX (1566617) | more than 5 years ago | (#29272929)

I'm a bit startled about these new decepticon warriors. Megatrons own survailance crew!

Missing tag (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29273137)

livefortheswarm

The article prompts many questions (1)

zenopus (114516) | more than 5 years ago | (#29273179)

Mobility
    What types of environment can they move about in? Desert? Shallow water? Everything in between?
    Are they small turtles or could the design be made self-righting?
Communication - Range? - Algorithm to leave a trail of relay bots for longer ranges?
Sensors
    Just touch? Basically just mapping then.
    Could they maybe have sensors for sniffing out explosives?
    Images? - Should a paranoid person worry if they find a few of those near a window?
Pollution - Do they contain heavy metals or other toxins?
Cost - When might these things be cost effective to deploy, say in Afghanistan?

What sensors? What communications? (1)

bzzfzz (1542813) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273613)

Where's the rest of the story? These devices are useless without communications and without sensory capability beyond detecting whether or not they've bumped into something. The locomotion will work on a smooth, hard surface, but beyond that, it's not useful.

To be sure, this class of device has potential, but as built, these are nothing but parlor tricks.

The only application I can think of is will come up if there's a retro resurgence of the Coleco vibrating football games of the 1960s.

I, for one...Seriously? No one? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29273637)

I, for one, welcome our swarming, solar-powered, robotic overlords!

overlords (1)

coulbc (149394) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273727)

Someone needs to welcome the new solar powered overlords.

It can't possibly just be me.... (2, Interesting)

mark-t (151149) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273751)

Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."

Did anybody else raise an eyebrow at this sentence, finding the notion to be perhaps a bit of a double entendre?

Large Market (1)

osomoore (1446439) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273777)

I, for one, welcome our new Solar-Powered Microbot Overlords.

"Locomotion is achieved via three vibrating legs, while a fourth horizontal vibrating leg is used as a touch sensor."
I'm sure these will be successful in at least one market.

RENEGADE!! (2, Funny)

drewmca (611245) | more than 4 years ago | (#29273843)

As long as Gene Simmons isn't holding the control box, I'm cool.

Solar powered surveillance? (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 4 years ago | (#29274639)

That's it! From now on, I'm only committing crimes at night.

Separate hardware from vaporware (1)

goodmanj (234846) | more than 4 years ago | (#29275357)

This is one of those typical popular science articles which totally mixed up the actual present-day achievement with a grandiose vision of the future, so the reader gets a giant dose of future shock when it's not called for.

Look carefully at what's actually built. A tiny vibrating bit of metal with a touch switch. It *looks* like a little bug, but its robotic capabilities are roughly equal to that of a a doorbell.

If the vibrating legs work as claimed, it can move in an uncontrolled, hopefully straight, path. It can't turn. Its only sensor feedback is a single touch switch.

People talk a lot about "emergent systems", but the individual elements need a certain level of complexity for it to work. A pile of paperclips will never get up and walk around, no matter how big a pile you make.

IMO, these microbots don't have enough different physical inputs (sensors) and outputs (actuators) to do anything exciting. Notice what's *not* in the article: no videos of the robots doing anything. The rest of the article is just vision and vapor.

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