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Robot Swarm at MoMath

A new interactive exhibition featuring friendly and colorful artificial intelligence

by David Graver
on 12 December 2014
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They might be kept under the glass floor of a boxing ring-like installation, but that doesn't mean the robots within NYC's National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath)'s new exhibition aren't friendly. In fact, they seek out interactions with each other as well as the museum's visitors, with clear intelligence and near-cheer. Two dozen robots live under the exhibit floor, glowing a variety of colors—with each color declaring their allegiance to a particular visitor. When donning a SensorPack backpack featuring that color, guests can interact with the robots in a handful of ways; sometimes followed closely underfoot and other times initiating the impetus to scatter. It's fun, addictive and has been years in the making.

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This is "Robot Swarm" and it's the product of cutting-edge developments in motion control and positioning technology. From a control deck screen, guests can issue one of five commands to all the robots: Pursue, Run Away, Robophobia, On Your Marks and Swarm (where robots are governed by a desire not to be too near or too far from one another). While the commands are dictated by the user, all of the behaviors each robot emits are the product of its own observation—be that of its location on the floor or its proximity from other robots or the humans above. The rest is all mathematic programming, a floor laden with circularly encoded barcode sensors that the robots read and an overhead camera charting it all.

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As fun as the experience is, and intuitive the user interface and SensorPacks are, the core of the exhibition balances innovation in computer science and a deeper study on the concept of "swarming" as a whole. These programmed attributes have potential value elsewhere, where tasks are required in parallel operation or where large numbers of robots are set to the same task, but also sheds light on the swarm mentality of animals in nature.

Cindy Lawrence, the museum's co-founder and co-executive director, shares with CH, "This is the only exhibit in the country where a person can interact with dozens of independent robots." She continues, "You get robots that illustrate something called emergent behavior, which is where every robot is following a simple rule: how close to be to its neighbors, or how far away to be from its neighbors or the visitors. Together it appears that they are following a very large plan, but they are each following a simple, local rule." These individual behaviors unite to form a community of behaviors, oftentimes leading to unexpected results. With a mission to demonstrate how math can be fun, MoMath strikes a cord with this playful implementation of robotics.

"Robot Swarm" opens to the public 14 December 2014, but a special adult-only preview "Robot Swarm at Swarm Night," part of the museum's Unbounded series, will take place tomorrow, Saturday, 13 December 2014 with tickets available for purchase online for $25.

Images courtesy of the Museum of Mathematics

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