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Video: Robotic Droplets Will Assemble Satellites
2/28/2013

Swarming robots, or droplets, developed by the University of Colorado, Boulder, may someday assemble telescopes and satellites in space.   (Source: University of Colorado, Boulder)
Swarming robots, or droplets, developed by the University of Colorado, Boulder, may someday assemble telescopes and satellites in space.
(Source: University of Colorado, Boulder)

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Greg M. Jung
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Swarming
Greg M. Jung   2/28/2013 8:41:31 PM
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Interesting article.  This concept reminds me of a swarming colony of army ants or cells in the human body all working together to complete a complex coordinated task (that one cell alone cannot do).

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming
Ann R. Thryft   3/1/2013 1:00:56 PM
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Greg, that's a good description of why many swarm robot designs are being developed. The concept of robotic swarms is modeled after biological swarming insects.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Swarming
Cabe Atwell   3/1/2013 6:40:43 PM
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Would these bots just travel around in orbit to fix satellites, or would they be assigned to one, I wonder? What type of propulsion are they planning? Nevertheless, the swarm-tech never fails to impress.

C

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming
Ann R. Thryft   3/4/2013 1:02:30 PM
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All good questions, Cabe. I'm sure we'll learn more if/when the space application ever emerges. So far, it's one of several the research team envisions, not an actual project in progress.

William K.
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Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/2/2013 8:13:51 PM
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I am wondering just what sort of repairs such small robots could be called on to do. Strength usually comes with size, and even working in concert, these would still be a collection of "small". An area of far greater concern would be if a "collective intelligence" should become self aware. That could lead to a number of unanticipated outcomes. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/4/2013 1:03:16 PM
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William, the researchers mentioned primarily assembly, not repair. The repair mentioned in the article was done by larger robots, and on coral reefs, which takes very little strength: picking up and placing very small pieces of coral. And swarms of small robots have worked together to assemble structures both large and small:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W18Z3UnnS_0
http://www.idsc.ethz.ch/Research_DAndrea/Archives/Flying_Machine_Enabled_Construction

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Cabe Atwell   3/5/2013 3:06:04 PM
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These bots remind me of white blood cells. They will surround a satellite until it is fixed. That will be interesting.

These bots should also travel around and disassemble the derelict space debris and push it all into a decaying orbit.

C

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/6/2013 1:24:41 PM
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Cabe, great visualization & metaphor. I wonder, though, if they're too small to deal with space junk. NASA is working on a different robotic system for that, which we covered here: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=249134

The satlets' size is not given, but I'd guess it's a bit bigger than these droplets.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/6/2013 1:23:26 PM
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William, your comment on self-awareness is interesting, but I think it's important to remember that self-assembly occurs throughout nature without necessarily implying an accompanying sentience.

William K.
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/6/2013 10:10:16 PM
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Ann, Of course self awareness is not what these researchers are aiming for , but others are seeking to make the robots "Real", using artificial inteligence. My concern is that the AI group will create something that leads to self awarenesss, and shortly after that we will al be in trouble. Just considerthe problem of being in a cloud of rbots small enough to inhale accidentaly, and being allergic to their case materials.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/7/2013 12:39:10 PM
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William, you've posted this basic comment/idea so often that I'm starting to think you know something about AI that the rest of us don't. The last time I looked, they were nowhere near achieving the kind of thing you're suggesting. Can you tell us any specifics of who's doing self-awareness research on the cutting edge right now?

William K.
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/7/2013 4:56:19 PM
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Ann, no, I can't tell you who. 

BUT, in the public domain there have been references to some university people working towards artificial intelligence, and they have included self awareness as one means of moving toward human type judgement. My advice would remain, to "Think very carefully about the ultimate effects of your creations", because sometimes the machine does not stop just because you push the stop button.

Since people are rather less predictable than computers and robots, conside the problems that we could have if those in-animate things became a lot less predictable. What if your washing machine developed an "attitude problem", rather than just a component failure?

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/8/2013 12:45:14 PM
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Thanks, William. I knew people working on AI back in the early 70s and again in the 90s and 00s. Trying to make computers work like we do in terms of logical processes is still a far cry from also giving them sentience and self-awareness. But no, I don't relish the thought of a toaster or a fridge with a 'tude. My computer already seems to have that problem :)



EdV
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
EdV   3/8/2013 5:12:10 PM
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Hi Ann.  Any short list of people working on machine consciousness would have to include Ray Kurzweil.  I suspect that's exactly what he is up to at Google.  He already has a well thought out published theory of the source of consciousness in humans.

William K.
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/8/2013 10:03:21 PM
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EdV, can you imagine the problems that a large server could cause if it chose to cause problems? Even worse if it was one connected to the internet with all of the resources that Google has access to. 

One part of the problem is that almost all computer code is written by programmers, and we know that programmers are NOT normal people. That came from my instructor way back in my Fortran Four class.

EdV
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
EdV   3/9/2013 1:13:31 AM
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Hi William. Well, Google's official long term goal IS the creation of concious, self aware, minds like ours. We all hope the servers don't get any more feisty than they already are. We need to have a set of rules like Asimov's already established when it "wakes up". But, how does one do that before we know exactly how it works? And, if the machine claims self awareness, how do we know whether to believe it? My favorite line of all time from a writer in this regard was written for Serge Graystone, a 100% CG character on the short-lived (sigh) TV show Caprica.  Serge was a household robot butler/security guard, and like the other characters of the show, in real life "Serge" had a Twitter account. It's probably still there. On Twitter, "Serge" answered fan's questions from his unique point of view. "Serge" claimed repeatedly that he was not self aware. Of course, the fans just stepped up the pressure to get Serge to admit that he was self aware. The writers ended the battle with this wonderful Godel sentence: "If I were self aware, don't you think I would know it?". In essence, how do we detect a mind that has become aware, but is hiding from us? Wandering back toward the topic ... If Kurzweil is correct that conciousness emerges from large amounts of simultaneous triggering with many levels of feedback, (my gross oversimplification) then perhaps the first conscious machine will be a large building made entirely of a huge swarm of tiny communicating meta-material robots whose collective purpose was to become and maintain the building. Hmmm... I remember a sci fi movie where a "grown" organic house eats its residents. Bon Appetit!

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/11/2013 4:52:12 PM
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I seem to recall that Dan Simmons' proposition for how robots become separate, self-aware entities in the Endymion series is that--they don't. Instead, a sort of collective AI emerges from the internet of the future, i.e., many, many interconnected machines, and it/they spans multiple hardware. So I think a swarm makes a lot of sense as a model for that interconnected hardware, and for the AI "mind". Theoretically speaking, of course. I still think the whole thing is, and will remain, in the realm of sci-fi.

William K.
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/11/2013 8:04:44 PM
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Ann, I read a quite scary science fiction book about that very thing a few years back, and the "swarm" was a collection of very small robotic things, smaller than mosquitoes, but when they started working togather they were very deadly. Plus they learned how to reproduce without human assistance.

So perhaps the solution is to avoid giving robots long-lasting power sources, to assure that any uprisings would be short lived. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/12/2013 12:51:47 PM
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William, I think you are describing Michael Crichton's "Prey." Sure sounds like it. And I think this time your tongue is firmly planted in your cheek, although self-assembling nano-robots is definitely an area of research and has been for a decade or so.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/12/2013 12:53:53 PM
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Having worked with, interviewed, socialized with, and even dated programmers, I agree that they're "not normal." But that can be a good thing: it often means way-above-average intelligence and a wicked sense of humor.

William K.
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
William K.   3/12/2013 4:17:20 PM
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Ann,

I suppose that you can be correct on that, but they certainly seem to think differently than the way that I think. Particularly with microsoft products, the response that I seem to get when attempting to instruct the software as to what I want to do is "why would you ever want to do that?", which leads to a new level of frustration about those who can only think, not only just "within the box", but also can only imagine "coloring within the lines", as it were. I am seldom chosen for projects because of thinking just like everybody else, but rather because of being able to visualize alternative ways of doing things. Anybody can do stuff "by the book" , if they are able to read the book.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/12/2013 9:48:55 PM
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Oh, wait a minute--I thought you said "programmers," not "people who work at MS and program dumb things into their software." I know exactly what you mean--about both MS-created software and thinking outside the lines--but the programmers I was singing the praises of sure as heck don't work for the Evil Empire.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Ann R. Thryft   3/20/2013 4:54:50 PM
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Thanks for that info, EdV. I'll check out his ideas.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Swarming robot "droplets"
Cabe Atwell   6/11/2014 12:36:31 AM
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They now want to crowd-fund a 1000-strong army of the robots to 'teach' them 'swarm intelligence' in order to perform certain tasks with efficiency. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this.

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