Robot navvies may be just around the corner

From The Economist:

TermiteIn a paper just published in Science, a group at Harvard, led by Justin Werfel, describes termite-inspired robots that can build things by combining magnetic bricks of a standard size. All their human controller has to do is program them with a few appropriate rules and leave them to get on with it.

Robot construction teams are not, in themselves, new. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have already demonstrated a system which uses remotely controlled flying robots to build things. What makes Dr Werfel’s approach different is that instead of having a controlling force, in the form of a computer program, sitting at the centre telling everything else what to do (as was the case in Pennsylvania), control is distributed throughout the system’s components, which cannot communicate with each other. The robots, which are little wheeled contraptions, do not need to see the bigger picture.

In the case of termites, the bigger picture is provided by natural selection, which has, over the millennia, refined the rules that individual termites obey. In the case of Dr Werfel’s robots, a human designer specifies the desired outcome and, with the help of a program developed by the team, generates the rules that will lead to its construction, with which each robot is then programmed. All that remains is to place a foundation brick to show the robots where to start building.

More here.