New Mergeable Nervous System Robots Can Share a Brain
Scientists develop the first robots capable of merging into a single-minded unit.
It sounds like something out of sci-fi, but scientists have just published a study in Nature announcing the development of the first autonomous robots that can merge their central processing units (CPUs) to create single a “hive” mind. Think the Borg in Star Trek TNG, or the bot swarms of the Matrix trilogy. The purpose of these new robots is, of course, not so diabolical. The idea is that they’re able to arrange themselves on the fly into different configurations for different tasks, and to suit different environments. Plus, they’re too cute to be evil.
Two bots and their ball (M. DORIGO AND NITHIN MATHEWS)
Prior to this breakthrough from Belgium’s Université Libre de Bruxelles, robots could cooperate, but that was “a little bit like if we had a bunch of people joining together to do something,” according to study coauthor Marco Dorigo. Each of those previous robots had its own sensors and CPUs, or “nervous system,” along with a pre-determined shape. As such, the study notes, a team of “modular robots lack the essential ingredient that enables complex sensorimotor responses in higher order animals, namely a nervous system that spans the whole body and transforms a composite system into a single, holistic entity.”
The new robots are mergeable nervous system (MNS) devices. Once merged as a group, one robot serves as a single “brain unit” and has access to all of the individual robots’ sensors and actuators, allowing the group to behave as a unified, fluid organism. (Each robot also retains an awareness of its own hardware.) And since the robots communicate wirelessly via WiFi, they don’t even need to be touching, allowing the creation of all sorts of arrangements.
In this video, you can see the MNS robots gather and then disperse into a variety of shapes. The red ones are the brain units.
(M. DORIGO AND NITHIN MATHEWS)
Even more impressive, a group — having just one “mind,” after all — can cohesively respond to an external stimulus. In this video, a stimulus approaches individual units at first, causing them to point out the threat to each other. Then the little green bully goes after merged groups.
(M. DORIGO AND NITHIN MATHEWS)
Groups are also self-aware to a degree, capable of diagnosing unit failure thanks to a “heartbeat protocol”:
Heartbeats, that is, periodic signals sent to indicate normal operation, are generated by the brain unit and sent through the robot nervous system at a fixed frequency. The absence of a heartbeat from a parent robotic unit tells a child robotic unit that its parent unit is faulty, while the absence of an acknowledgment from a child robotic unit tells the parent unit that its child unit is faulty.
When a fault is detected, the group can heal itself.
(M. DORIGO AND NITHIN MATHEWS)
At this point, the MNS bots attach to each other in just two dimensions via simple, rigid connectors. The study’s authors intend to next develop a more fluid connection capability that allows the robots to arrange themselves in three dimensions, and with flexible joints.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
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- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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