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SYFY WIRE robots

Shapeshifting worms that merge the Blob with the Borg could inspire swarms of futurisitc soft robots

By Elizabeth Rayne
borg picard

To assimilate is one thing, but what if the Borg were then to aggregate into a mass of cyborgs that thought and moved as one being?

There are creatures that can do that. They might not be actual robots, but California blackworms could influence future soft robot swarms that are made of many individuals that think and act as one. These creatures form enormous blobs in times of drought and use collective thinking to survive. Worm-blobs can even shapeshift to seek out water, such as growing “arms” of worms that try to sense it and then wriggle back in if nothing is there.

Researcher Chantal Nguyen of BioFrontiers institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently led a study on how these worms operate (eerily like the Borg), and how the squirming masses could be replicated by swarms of soft robots. These robots could accomplish things that are physically impossible for other types of robots to pull off.

“Individual worms constantly sense their local environments and respond accordingly, potentially triggering neighboring worms to respond, and so on,” Nguyen told SYFY WIRE. “In robot swarms, local interactions, behaviors, and functionalities may emerge at the collective scale that would not otherwise be achieved by an individual robot.”

For blackworms to act the way robot swarms ideally should, they have to be exposed to the right conditions. The worms were immersed in water that had the temperature gradually raised from 53 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers observed how the behavior of the worms would change as their surroundings heated up. The worms kept creeping and crawling around until they couldn’t take the heat anymore. At 86 degrees, a temperature threshold past which they could suffer bodily damage, they stopped moving to protect themselves from being boiled alive.

Watching hundreds of worms entangle with each other and act as one organism inspired Nguyen’s team to create a computer model for the optimal behavior they would want from robots. What they realized from the movement of the worm blobs was that the individual worms would have to be just entangled enough so the entire blob wouldn’t fall apart, but they couldn’t be too tightly entwined (as they were when the heat was too high) for the blob to move. The model programmed worms as molecules that repelled each other when too close.

“Worms, and other organisms, inspire the development of soft robots that are not rigid like those in many robot swarms, but are rather flexible, deformable, and can potentially entangle themselves in the way that blackworms do,” said Nguyen.

Using data from the experiment, they adjusted conditions for the molecule-worms, which also acted like molecules by being able to attract each other when they had some distance between them, but not interacting when they were far away from each other. Individuals were programmed so that they would stray from the collective for a while and go off on their own when temperatures went especially low. The actual experiment and its computer model showed when the worms were most effective at moving and processing information as a blob.

No prototypes of soft robots like this have been built yet, but the researchers figured out the physics of how flexible polymers and filaments would enable soft robots to get around much like the the invertebrates they were inspired by. They also took into account that worms need friction to move across solid surfaces, unlike the water they were moving through in the lab. Experiments with worm blobs in a lab told them under what conditions their behavior was most like the Borg, so that “assimilation” can someday be incorporated into actual robot swarms.

Upcoming experiments will figure out how much influence worms have on each other and how fast information is transferred through the blob. Nguyen sees potential uses for robot swarms like this, ranging range from building functions to materials that can almost think for themselves.

“This is a very open field, but possible applications could be found in the development of ‘smart’ adaptive materials to build and engineer structures at various scales, or in biomedical applications such as diagnostic tools and wearable devices,” she said.

If you want to wear something that thinks for you, you’re going to have to assimilate.