Justin Werfel at M.I.T. wants to adapt the algorithms of Nature’s tiny architects to human construction presumably on a microscopic/epic scale.
The basic idea is to understand how a dumb, locally focused termite can create the 12 foot tall complexity if a termite mound. Once we figure this out, we can then build stupid, myopic robots that build beautiful miracles.
- Quicktime animation of self guided robots creating a complex structure by using local knowledge and simple algorithms. I like that the robots’ arbitrary objective is to build the letter “H”.
- Quicktime movie of Lego robots
- A reasonably accessible publication (.pdf) explaining some of the technical questions.
1 It’s visually appealing and amusing at first to see the Lego Robots driving around on the card table. Then you realize the profundity of what Werfel is seeking. This is deep understanding of God/Nature (your choice) on the same scale of Newton’s piercing the divine curtain. One more step out of Plato’s Cave!
2 This is a crucial missing link amidst the nano-buzz floating around in the chemistry and materials science worlds. Most nanotechnology research published in JACS or Nature has been molecular, like inventing mortar and bricks, whereas J K Werfel seems to be on a whole meta level above this. Instead of inventing the nouns, this guy is inventing the verbs.
3 This could bear tangential fruit in brain research, to whit, the idea of how neurons know how to organize themselves when all they can see is their hundred nearest neighbors. [For related research, enjoy the beautiful images of the Blue Brain: a slice of rat brain being built from THOUSANDS of microprocessors]
4 What a lovely tying together of 200 year old abstract math (Hamilton, topology), undergrad chemistry (closest packing, unit crystal), African zoology (the termite mounds), and science fiction (grey goo that can build Arthur C. Clarke’s space elevator cable, a necessarily nano-constructed diamond cable).
[I stumbled across all of the preceding while looking on Google Images for "Skeptic", so, as usual, a banal Internet search turned up really cool stuff. ]