In the Future, Little Robots will Outnumber the Big Ones

Len Rosen's picture

February 14, 2014 - If you think Data from Star Trek is the future of robotics, then think again. More and more it appears that the vast majority of our robot companions will not be humanlike at all, but rather come in multiple sizes and shapes with functionality to perform specific tasks.

With the interconnectedness of the Internet, robots will be able to share intelligence and collectively respond to tasks much like a colony of ants or termites. The TERMES Project at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in cooperation with that university's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, are demonstrating just how swarm intelligence can work.

Results of the project are published in today's issue of the journal Science. Modeled after termites, the Harvard team created a group of individual robots that work collectively as a construction crew. Their job - to build complex three-dimensional structures without any central authority to guide them, just their combined intelligence. The TERMES robots built towers, pyramids and castles made of foam bricks. When needed they constructed staircases to reach higher levels.

There is no resemblance in the action of these little robots to how humans go up constructing things. We develop hierarchies with architects, project managers, site foreman and workers when doing construction of this type. Not the TERMES robots. They do their work the same way termites and ants go about building a mound. No individual supervises. Instead they use stigmergic collaboration, a collective form of self-organization that uses individual observation and communication leading to appropriate combined responses. Think of how Wikipedia has been assembled and you see a form of stigmergy. Or open source projects like Mozilla Firefox, also benefiting from stigmergic collaboration.

Each TERMES robot executes a job without consideration of other robots around them doing similar work. You can have 5,000 of these little fellows all performing similar actions leading to astounding results. The world of insects demonstrate just how effective collective intelligence based on swarm behaviour can be. Look at the elegance of bee hives, or the complex structures of termite mounds and ant colonies.

How would we harness the power of these little guys? Think about dealing with emergencies like earthquake rescue after a building collapses with thousands of TERMES robots digging out those trapped in the ruins. Or how about sending them by the hundreds of thousands to Mars where they could construct the habitats that arriving astronauts could immediately occupy.

This is a world of difference from Data but nonetheless, TERMES is a powerful demonstration of the future uses of artificial intelligence.


TERMES robots at work


robotic future and Buckminster Fuller Challenge

Hi Len,
I am in the process of preparing an application for my four year project, CargoFish, in the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. It struck me how true this article is, as the CargoFish project is essentially a "physical internet" populated by physical packet carrying, specialized autonomous cooperating robots. They are additionally housed in their own specialized environment... an infrastructure utility of a sort non existent at the moment, but sorely needed. I would love to hear from you and tell you more about it. Please contact me via my contact form at
Thank you,
Robert DeDomenico

In response to Rober DeDomenico

I would love to hear more about your project and will visit your website.

2014 Int'l Physical Internet Conference

CargoFish Physical Internet was well received last week at the conference! To begin with... they waived the fee if I would attend. The concept was considered very favorably by Dr Benoit Montreuil, Geri Rago, Sergio Barbarino, Dario Biggi, Mike Ogler, Peter Cunningham, and many others in attendence. I am still not at liberty to detail the specific mechanisms employed in its design, but I am far better able to explain why it is sure to be the future.