Friday, November 16, 2007

Robots Turn Roaches Dumber Lemmings

To go where no robot has gone before was the mission of a tiny robots dipped in the heavenly eau de parfum or essence of cockroach, to gain acceptance as a fellow bug. The robot succeeded so spectacularly the nest of cockroaches changed its behavior for the alpha robot and did things not in the live bugs best interest. All of that instinctive hardwiring and learned behavior went right out the roach motel with the appearance of a star robot, much like what happens when a new tech thing, cough iPhone - PS3, Wii, goes on sale. Scientists used a variety of miniature robotics to document the insect behavioral experiment and survival impact on the group dynamics of sociable roaches. (Photo Roachbot ULB ELFP)

This experiment in bug peer pressure combined entomology, robotics and the study of ways that complex and even intelligent patterns can arise from simple behavior. Animal behavior research shows that swarms working together can prosper where individuals might fail, and robotics researchers have been experimenting with simple robots that, together, act a little like a swarm.

“We decided to join the two approaches,” said José Halloy, a biology researcher at the Free University of Brussels and lead author of a paper describing the research in today’s issue of the journal Science.

Dr. Halloy and his colleagues worked with roaches because their societies are simple, egalitarian and democratic, with none of the social stratification seen in some other insect societies — no queen bees, no worker ants. “Cockroaches are not like that,” Dr. Halloy said. “They live all together.”

They also have weak eyes, which allowed the researchers to create a robotic roach that resembles a miniature golf cart more than an insect. In the roach world, however, looking right is not as important as smelling right, and the scientists doused the machines with eau de cockroach sex hormones.

To freak the roaches totally out, scientists manipulated roach living conditions by messing with their heads and organizing principles in a one square yard of controlled roach imprisonment space with one disk providing a dark shade the other disk a bit lighter upscale circular floorplan. The bots were sent in for serious espionage on roach society. After introductions and living together in a roach reality show, four robots programmed with light sensors resisted going to the dark contemplative reproductive space of the insects. With a touch of a button, the roach bots gravitated to the light. In an astounding 60% of the time the cockroaches dismissed their natural inclinations and followed the devious bots. With the success of this experiment, life scientists are ambitious with a plan to simulate a chicken and other animals in future experiments.

Scientists were adamant that one could not extrapolate the results to people. Nor did they test the extent to which the roaches would stop self-destructive behavior such as going into direct sunlight or rushing to the five items or less express insecticide lane.

Most expensive book on cockroaches I have ever seen, but diligently researched by renowned entomologist William J. Bell. Preeminent co-authors of Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior and Natural History include Louis M. Roth an Christine A. Nalepa.

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