How Do You Program A Group Of Robots?

by Michael Bell

A team of robots to explore melting ice-shelves will decide among themselves how to do their work - and scientists are wondering how best to program the work allocation process.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with Pennsylvania State University to create the robots - called SnoMotes - to work in the dangerous conditions of an ice-sheet. “In order to say with certainty how climate change affects the world’s ice, scientists need accurate data points to validate their climate models,” said Ayanna Howard, lead on the project and an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. “Our goal was to create rovers that could gather more accurate data to help scientists create better climate models. It’s definitely science-driven robotics.”

Howard and her team are testing two different methods that allow the robots to decide amongst themselves which positions they will take to get all the necessary measurements.

The first is an “auction” system that lets the robots “bid” on a desired location, based on their proximity to the location (as they move) and how well their instruments are working or whether they have the necessary instrument (one may have a damaged wind sensor or another may have low battery power). The second method is more mathematical, fixing the robots to certain positions in a net of sorts that is then stretched to fit the targeted location.

There's no doubt that the first method would be closer to a human model; but humans in a similar situation can take advantage of a sophisticated, genetically-programmed set of evolved group behaviours. Leadership often appears useful in optimizing the behaviour of small groups, but there is little evidence that it is a genetic trait; it is more likely to be a cultural phenomenon.

As robots take over more and more human group behaviours, as for instance in deep-sea mining, warfare and industrial plant management, much work will need to be done on this subject. While a group of deep-sea mining robots should obviously be co-operative among themselves, how should they behave when confronted by a rival group of miners from a different company? That's easier to answer for groups of military robots, of course.

It's really a pity that Asimov didn't write: 'We, Robots', as well as 'I, Robot'. We shall have to think it out for ourselves!



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