I, Rodent

At the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, neurobiologist Kenji Doya is ankle-deep in rodents. Not real ones, but “cyber rodents” made of plastic and silicon. Two of the critters circle each other in a mating dance. Others forage for fresh batteries on the floor. Another one just sits there. “That one is lazy,” says Doya, who also heads a group at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto. “It doesn’t expend energy to get a reward” – and probably won’t last long.

Groups of robots have been fixtures in academic robotics labs for years. But Doya’s project is one of the first to use robots to probe how administering rewards to individuals when they achieve simple goals can give rise to intelligent group behaviors. This work could help designers build machines that collaborate to carry out complex tasks. By studying how groups of mobile robots interact and adapt, researchers could eventually develop self-sufficient swarms of robots that explore hostile environments, gather surveillance data, and repair equipment remotely.

The key, says Doya, is teaching the robots to do the right thing. Each 22-centimeter-long cyber rodent is equipped with a processor chip, a camera, sensors, motorized wheels, and infrared data ports that allow it to communicate, or “mate,” with others. If a robo rat approaches a battery pack or orients itself to mate, it receives a digital “reward” – a snippet of software code that reinforces that behavior in the future. Over time, says Doya, the robots compete for power and may even develop territories and alliances.

This story is part of our December 2004 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

“It’s early-stage but very promising,” says Terry Sejnowski, a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA. “Kenji’s robots have a clever algorithm to develop sophisticated behaviors.”

It could be years before such robots do useful work outside the lab. But Junku Yuh, program director of robotics and computer vision at the National Science Foundation, says funding multirobot systems is important because they could lead to more efficient ways to control machines and gather information in the field. To that end, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Burlington, MA–based iRobot are developing new theories about and military applications for swarms of robots. There is safety in numbers – but there could also be smarts.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.