Robots Acting Locally and Building Globally

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Science  14 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6172, pp. 742-743
DOI: 10.1126/science.1250721

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Termites are among the most fascinating animal architects in nature; their mounds were first described in a scientific journal more than 200 years ago (1). How can such tiny insects, each less than 1 cm in size and equipped only with a simple brain, construct air-conditioned buildings up to 500 times their size? Termites' construction principles differ fundamentally from those of human architecture. Humans build houses according to a blueprint, and the construction process is centrally guided by this plan. In contrast, social insects such as termites build in a decentralized, self-organized manner. Each individual works rather independently and follows a set of simple rules; the interactions among the workers and the interaction of each worker with its environment ensure an organized process without a central blueprint (24). On page 754 of this issue, Werfel et al. (5) describe the use of such insect principles to guide simple robots in constructing user-defined structures for human purposes.