Swarm Intelligence

I have been quite fascinated about emergent systems, where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Rafe Needleman writes about how one company is making a business out of it.

Technology, recently, has learned from the ants, creating a new kind of computer that’s useless by itself but formidable in a swarm.

Dust Inc. designs small computers it calls motes, and uses them as platforms to collect data with a variety of sensors. Currently, a single mote is a little bigger than a 9-volt battery…The motes use very low-power CPUs and a super-small open-source operating system called TinyOS. The operating life of a battery-powered mote can be several years.

The motes have radios in them to communicate their sensor readings. This is where things get really interesting. The low-power radios attached to these low-power computers don’t have enough range to continuously broadcast back to a central base station. Instead, they wake up once in a while, at predetermined times, and blast their data to a nearby mote, which then collects and retransmits that data to another nearby mote, and so on, until finally the data reaches a central collection node or recording computer. The motes set up this bucket-brigade communication automatically. If the location of a few of the motes is known, the rest can be scattered pretty much randomly and the network will still be able to tell where each individual mote is, even though most individual motes will have no inherent data on their own positions.

This is what’s known as a self-organizing sensor network, and it’s a powerful idea. One obvious application is military: Air-drop a bunch of vibration sensors into the Iraqi desert and they can report vehicle and personnel movement. A similar technique could be used to gather data on seismic activity or monitor highway traffic.

Quite fascinating. A book by Michael Crichton (Prey) recently speculated on the mix of nanotech and artificial life.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.