01 February 1998

Automata swarm with good intentions

Babbage is often delighted by the way modern technology brings happy reality to ancient dreams. Seeing hang-gliders over the Devon cliffs reminds him of the artificial wings of Daedalus. The vacuum flask, wherein he keeps his tea on railway journeys, recalls the magical bottles of Welsh legend which preserved the heat of any liquid, “though it was carried from the east of the world to the west”. An informant at a Swiss-based food multinational suggests another example on the near horizon, arguing that a ‘swarm’ of small robots could replace large agricultural machinery, labouring like the ants of Greek myth who helped Psyche fulfil the impossible task of sorting a large heap of mixed seeds.

This hopeful vision was echoed by the correspondents who took Babbage to task for his pessimistic picture of distributed automata as a potential monster. Many specialists, to whom Babbage can only defer, have painted instead a bright future of robot swarms in the service of humanity, from exploring the vastness of space to maintenance of the human body (Lovelace’s “molecular universe”).

An acquaintance of Babbage pointed to the contemporary problem of landmine clearance. Could not connected automata, she asked, perform this task more rapidly and safely than humans? Workers at a Scandinavian university quickly dispelled Babbage’s doubts as to the cost: each automaton could further disperse by controlling cheaper, more expendable, ‘drones’ to spread its presence across perhaps a hectare of territory

From an eminent American astronomer came the thought that dispersal could be applied beyond land devices. Flying, seagoing or spaceborne swarms are equally feasible, perhaps with different drone types held as a common resource and assigned to individual ‘queens’ as needed. They could operate in hazardous environments - ocean trenches, volcanic regions or the asteroid belt - taking over roles such as seismic research, disaster relief and mining. Such a swarm could even undertake for us the long journey to other stars. When idle in transit it could disperse to form a vast radio telescope, thousands of miles across: the ultimately flexible research tool.

Babbage finds this flexibility enchanting: an extension of Lovelace’s idea of the Analytical Engine as an absolutely general machine. And with advances such as the PatMax improved machine vision and the University of York’s AURA “reasoning” neural network, both described in November’s issue, these dreamt-of automata come ever closer to reality.