A View from Christopher Mims
Robots as Art: The Serene Beauty of LumiBots
Somewhere in a dark room in Germany, artificial “ants” demonstrate emergence by tracing one another’s phosphorescent trails.
Encountering it for the first time, you’d never guess that the totality of lumiBots - which consist of a darkened room, the soft grinding of gears, and an inexplicable array of slowly-growing light trails splashed across the floor - isn’t just some art student’s senior thesis.
Designed on the same principle as ants and their pheromone trails, which lay down and refine the paths to food and other resources by sprinkling the ground with odiferous molecules, lumiBots use light instead of smell.
Each ‘bot is equipped with a tiny infrared light. As it drives itself across a glow-in-the-dark mat, this leaves a trail of visible phosphorescence. In the front of the bot, a light sensor helps the lumiBot follow any trail it encounters, its own or that of other lumiBots.
By both following an existing trail and reinforcing it by laying down a new one, or even refining it by taking shortcuts, just as real ants do, lumiBots, which have no memory, communicate elementary spatial information to one another and allow designs on the floor to arise by emergence, rather than the dictates of a pre-defined program.
The result is a simple but effective demonstration of one kind of “swarm intelligence” and the emergence that makes it possible. Easy enough to say that no one ant knows how to build a colony or find enough food to keep it from starving - but quite another to show, using signals that can be perceived by humans, how ants accomplish it.
And that’s the goal of Mey Kronemann and Verena Hafner’s lumiBots - that and surprising their human masters with other, eerily animalistic emergent behaviors. From their paper on the subject:
A LumiBot’s behaviour can be influenced by changes in its surrounding. Thus, intriguing effects emerge that are not pre-programmed: A change in light conditions caused by a person entering the room will make the robots stir as if alarmed - whereas it is only the changing value their photo resistor is receiving which causes their reaction. A quality has emerged which is usually associated with higher organisms, that is, animals.