Robots Roundup: Flash Mobs, Room Service, and Hitchhikers | TechWell

Robots Roundup: Flash Mobs, Room Service, and Hitchhikers

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... R2-D2, the most beloved robot in the Star Wars universe, made us heart robots. Although the robots among us today certainly can’t match R2-D2’s charisma, they are performing some pretty incredible feats.

For starters, the first thousand-robot flash mob took place at Harvard University. Created in professor Radhika Nagpal's lab at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, these three-legged “Kilobots,” each one merely a few centimeters across, represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence.

Think of how a colony of ants swarms to accomplish complex tasks, building rafts and bridges to cross difficult terrain. The tiny Kilobots receive instructions, such as “form a sea star shape,” via an infrared light. They then start blinking at one another and gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. If one makes a wrong move, nearby robots sense the problem and cooperate to fix it.  

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” says Nagpal. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

You can view these robots in action below. And if you’re really interested, the Kilobot robot design and software are available open source for non-commercial use. 


In another experiment, TechCrunch reports that Starwood, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, is running a pilot program with two robotic butlers—Botlrs—to deliver toothbrushes and extra towels to guests in their Cupertino Aloft Hotel.

Then, there’s hitchBOT, the Hitchhiking Robot, who as part of a social robotics experiment successfully made its way across Canada this summer by hitchhiking.

Robotics is one of the most exciting and up and coming tech fields today. Do you have any spare parts from LEGO Mindstorms developer kits scattered around the house? Maybe it’s time to dig them up. Remember, R2-D2 and Star Wars: Episode VII are coming next year!

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