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Inspiration from Termites: Robot "Self-Organization" Is Actually Intelligent Design

termite mounds.jpg

Taking inspiration from termites, which through collective behavior can build impressive air-conditioned mounds five hundred times their own size, robot designers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering built small robots that can build a pattern out of foam blocks without knowing the master plan. A video clip on Science Now shows the little blind bots at work, constructing a trident shape by following simple behavioral rules. Warning: They are strangely cute.

Since the work is coming out of a lab called the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, is this an example of self-organization: i.e., emergent complexity arising spontaneously from group behavior? Does it show bottom-up evolution of complexity without direction from the top? You'll get one clue from the title of the paper in Science, "Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team."

Judith Korb, commenting on this paper in Science, thinks that lack of a central blueprint is an argument against intelligent design:

Termites' construction principles differ fundamentally from those of human architecture. Humans build houses according to a blueprint, and the construction process is centrally guided by this plan. In contrast, social insects such as termites build in a decentralized, self-organized manner. Each individual works rather independently and follows a set of simple rules; the interactions among the workers and the interaction of each worker with its environment ensure an organized process without a central blueprint.

Korb practically turned Harvard's engineers into purveyors, if not pawns, of natural selection:

In both nature's construction works and the structures created by the robots in the approach of Werfel et al., the properties of the final product are crucial. A termite mound's architecture can determine the success of a colony. Mounds that are better adapted to local environments will, as a rule, have more offspring; thus, improved building rules that are genetically encoded will spread over time through a population. What is different in nature is that it starts with "mutations" in the building rules that are then tested in the evolutionary process. Over the millennia, evolution tested different rules, and what we observe today are those that worked.

Behold, the standard just-so storytelling method of Darwinism, which cannot hold up logically. Korb simply transferred the designer -- the mind of the tester -- to the environment. She claims that success in the test is to "have more offspring," but surely that does not require building an air-conditioned mound, or else all animals would do that or fail the test. And how does she define terms like "architecture" and "genetically encoded" and "building rules" without personifying evolution? How can she think the termites evolved the hardware and software to pass the test without begging the question of Darwinian evolution? Her own vocabulary shows that she can't get away from design.

What the project demonstrates is design all the way down. Here's how we know:

  1. The engineers are -- well, engineers: trained designers.
  2. The engineers used their minds and senses, watching termites, to devise a plan.
  3. The engineers designed every aspect of the robots: the wheels, the lifts, the hardware and software.
  4. The engineers programmed the robots to follow rules of their own choosing.
  5. The engineers, not the robots, observed the project, evaluated its success, and published the paper.
  6. The robots were given a goal -- just not the specifics of how to achieve it. Even so, success was predicated on achieving the goal.
  7. Despite all their planning, their success was extremely modest: to get the robots to arrange bricks into a trident shape.
  8. The engineers had to continually interfere to fix things. Science Now says,

The trident is not very complex, but as Barbara Webb, a bioroboticist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom who was not involved with the work, points out, "it's always really hard to make these things work in the real world." Indeed, Werfel says getting the bots up to speed for the job was quite the challenge, as robots tend to make small errors -- they drift off course and can fall off the structure, they fail to pick up the brick, and so on -- that add up and need to be corrected. (Emphasis added.)

Only a mind can perceive an error and correct it. The mind knows what the goal is. An error is a deviation from the goal. In the future, engineers will probably get better at reducing errors by programming better error correction routines into the software to cover all contingencies. One can only imagine what Korb's mutations would do to functioning robots.

It's a clever project, one that may have useful applications in the future, but no one should be tricked into thinking this has anything to do with evolution. If you ever see robots building an air-conditioned mound, or a wall of sandbags to protect against flooding, you can be sure they were programmed to do it with appropriate hardware and software designed in advance. Robots do not spontaneously emerge from raw materials, self-organize, and innovate a beneficial product for themselves or others. They do what they are programmed to do.

What this story is really about is biomimetics: the imitation of nature's designs. Once again, it presupposes that natural designs are good designs, worth imitating in a lab.

Back to those termites: bottom-up, spontaneous self-organization by unguided processes? If you didn't see where they came from, how could you tell? Harvard's own experience in designing things to work in "the real world" shows that the best inference would be intelligent design.

Image: Termite mounds, Brian Yap/Flickr.