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For 15 minutes, I was the king of robots

For 15 minutes, I was the king of robots


A symphony of machines at the Museum of Mathematics

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As I walked around the edges of a metallic boxing ring, a half dozen or so crab-like robots scurried under my feet and followed my every move, their backs glowing the same green color as a tracker I wore on my shoulder. Inside the ring, the robots moved beneath a thick layer of transparent flooring, not entirely dissimilar to a glass-bottom boat. A few red-hued robots passed by, causing a brief pile-up that they (slowly) sorted through.

And then suddenly, all my minions turned around and tried to (again, slowly) roll as far away from me as possible. The monitor overhead alerted me that their programming had changed from "pursue" to "run away." Some rushed immediately to the opposite corner. Others seemed to shake in place — a delay in calculating the most efficient path that I couldn't help but anthropomorphize as being frozen in fear.

"If you want to motivate a kid to study music, you take them to a symphony. Where do we do that in mathematics?"

This week the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) opens Robot Swarm, a new exhibit to demonstrate emergent behavior — the concept that you can mathematically explain and even predict certain group behaviors like those that occur in flocks of birds and schools of fish. According to MoMath founder Glen Whitney, while the end result might seem lifelike or intelligent, "at the root it's just a simple mathematical rule being applied over and over again."

The trilobite-esque robots themselves are able to sense each other's presence, but they don't directly "talk" to each other. Instead, each robot reads its position based on the patterned floor tiles coordinate their movements via a central server overhead. Some of the technology in the exhibit is the same that Amazon uses to ensure its factory robots don't collide with each other while processing orders.

Some of the same technology found in Amazon's factory robots

Right now, the "swarm" possesses five distinct behaviors that you can select via an adjacent kiosk. In addition to modes like "Run Away" and "Pursue," there are also more intricate behaviors like "Robophobia," wherein the robots all flee from one another and in turn create a lattice-like structure akin to molecules in a crystal.

The pre-programmed swarm behaviors are already pretty impressive, but they'll soon be joined by others. MoMath hopes to release an API late next year that will allow people to create their own behaviors, and submit for potential use in the exhibit.

Whitney hopes that letting kids interact with emergent groups will get them excited about math. "If you want to motivate a kid to study music," Whitney said, "you take them to a symphony. Where do we do that in mathematics?"