Swarm coordination and the news

I read two items within a few minutes of each other, and while they initially seemed unrelated, on reflection it occurred to me that the Era of the Swarm is now well underway.

The first item has to do with coordinating the behavior of heavy machinery. As reported in Technology Review, a company called REGEN Energy is selling wireless units that can attach to machinery and modify their power consumption. What’s nice about it is there is no need for fancy top-down centralized control based on (often mythical) perfect information. Just plug the units in and they can find each other and adopt economizing behavior. A simple example of this is: don’t turn on multiple air conditioners at the same time. That’s the command-and-control version of the rule, though. The decentralized version would go like this: “Does anybody around here mind if I fire up in about ten seconds? ‘Cause I can wait if that’s going to cause a problem.” I don’t know if this particular product will take off, but insect-based reasoning is certainly on the rise.

The second item I read had to do with the behavior of young voters. The question is: how do they find their news? The answer, and the money quote from the article is: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Rather than getting information from a single all-knowing news source that has access to (often mythical) perfect information, young people are more likely to rely on a network of forwarded links from their friends, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (ahem).

I, for one, welcome our new insect overbrain.

Evolving robots

Read this story and you may well conclude a robot uprising is right around the corner.

Carl Zimmer’s recent post Evolving Robotspeak describes robotics research done by social evolution researcher Laurent Keller in Switzerland. Plenty of folks have used genetic algorithms to “breed” robots, but this is the first time I’ve heard of someone using family and colony models for their genetics. In a nutshell, if you breed individual robots to find virtual food, they quickly get trained to do pretty well. But if you breed them as families, they do even better. To put it in anthropomorphic terms, their intermingled genetics help them understand the value of cooperation.

It’s fascinating to see the genetic theories of social behavior borne out in a colony of robotic organisms. This Darwin guy may have been on to something after all.