Saturday, February 22, 2014

Of Termites and Robots

Robots can learn the skills of a termites, who without a leader can build themselves a new home. All a robot needs are instructions about building and traffic rules.

Building instructions are pretty simple. Set up the conditions and the actions under all scenarios. 

For example: If current level requires no more bricks begin next layer, otherwise place brick in section needing brick.
(I’m sure their instructions are more geeked up with code, but you get the idea. Laying a brick is pretty much the same on one layer as it is on another.)

They only thing left is dealing with which robot is going to lay the last one on row one and which robot will begin row two and how to keep the robots from knocking each other over, getting in the way of other robots, and starting a brawl…which is the reason why humans require supervision.

The way to prevent these bad behaviors is called TRAFFIC RULES and it turns out termites and robots will follow them MUCH BETTER than humans.

Take the speed limit for example. I’m pretty sure the sign
doesn’t say ‘Go 9 miles over the posted speedlimit because then, then cop will stop someone else.’

Or the law about staying in the far right lane except when passing. NO ONE follows that rule, possibly because it’s a stupid rule that would make it impossible for new people to enter the road if we all ignored the other lanes and kept to the right.

I’m all for the rule don’t pass on the right, but lots of people ignore that too.

And some, usually after drinking, enter the freeway going the wrong direction. That never works out well.

However, as long as we don’t give robots stupid rules they’ll be fine.

So if we tell them to go in one direction, they will. After laying their brick, they’ll continue on their path, climb down, grab another brick and get back into the queue. 

They will not honk horns, fly birds, get out of robot shoes or throw their bricks at one another. They will patiently wait for their time to come. 

They will not fall asleep while waiting, or step out for a smoke. They will just wait. 

They won’t monkey with each other’s code, or rile the other robots up about their low (as in no) pay or their inability to vote, despite the fact they are far closer to being a human than any corporation is.

No they will stand ready, holding their brick, waiting for their time to lay it and go back to retrieve another.

The robots could build dams, levees and ugly warehouses because we could use some new ones.

And as long as the robots were given good code to begin with, they will build it perfectly. Just like termites do.

Okay, I’ll admit termites seem to lack aesthetics, but have you ever tried to kick one of those mounds. You’ll break your foot.

So while we’ll have ugly dam, levees and warehouses, it’s better than giving the robots designer rules. That creative spark could very well give them self-awareness and soon we’ll have a whole bunch of outraged robots wearing scarves that tangle in their wheels and catfights over whose brick is prettier.

No it is better we have ugly but strong dams and levees.

For the sensible (but not nearly as funny) version of this article go to Scientific America. You'll also get to see a video of the robots in action.


  1. I'll be letting my writer friend, TermiteWriter, know about this blog. I'll bet she has something to say.

  2. LOL. Hopefully, she won't be insulted.

  3. I didn't read the SA article, so, as usual, i'm speaking from a place of little knowledge, but it seems to me that these robots require a fair amount of infrastructure to accomplish what is at bottom a pretty simple task... as long as their scarves stay clean! I mean, where do the bricks come from? Not only making them but transporting over long distances? And the foundation: who or what completes that work?

    Keeping them from the fashionista spark of designng aesthetices, that means they won't ever be able to do the design work needed. Not that I'm advocating replacing Mechanical and Civil Engineers and Architects (some of my best friends...) with robots.

    Thanks for keeping us laughing while (hopefully) thinking about these things.

    1. They get the bricks from a pile. That's not their job. Where do termites get the dirt they make houses from. The pick it up, their case, they may actually modify the dirt...not really know. I've never hung around with termites. In fact, I tend to spray them with poison upon sight. Most unfriendly of me.


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