Robobees, swarms, and the power of the collective

Robobees, swarms, and the power of the collective
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Like something out of a SyFy original movie (but much, much better), researchers at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have been working on the development of an automated bee. In fact, they’ve been working on the development of swarms of them, hoping to not only replicate the honeybee's invaluable role in our food chain but to also advance technology in the areas of agriculture, surveillance, and mapping. 

The mental image of robobees is fascinating and maybe a bit amusing. But it becomes more interesting when, as manager, we start to think about how they will be programmed to behave. Consider a swarm of artificially intelligent robobees as a workforce, representing the cleanest slate possible. You could “teach” that swarm the most effective way to collaborate to tackle a task and achieve that task's desired outcome–without having to deal with the complexities of personality, background, and varied skill level. What behaviors would you include? Would those behaviors reflect the open source way?

First, a little bit of history: In 2006, commercial beekeepers across the U.S. noticed a sharp increase in the number of honeybee colonies that were suddenly perishing en masse. The cause of death was attributed to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). By 2009, Popular Science estimated that CCD had wiped out nearly 865,000 of the country's 2.4 million honeybee hives.

So what's the big deal? We could all do without the occasional summertime bee sting, right? But there’s more at stake than eliminating a minor human discomfort. In addition to delivering the delicious honey for which they are named, these bees are actually a critical component of our delicate ecosystem. In fact, pollination by honeybees contributes to the growth of one-third of our nation’s food supply. Without the bees, flowers would not turn into fruit and crops would not cross-pollinate, vastly reducing the production of needed agricultural products.

And given the gravity of that problem, the National Science Foundation (NSF) sought a solution, establishing a five-year, $10 million program for a team of biologists, computer scientists, and mechanical and electrical engineers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Their answer? The robobee. Robobees are small, lightweight robotic insects programmed to replicate the pollinating function of the honeybee. These miniature robots are made entirely of carbon fiber and titanium, can fly independently, and are built to complete any number of programmed tasks. Equipped with sensors and cameras, it's easy to imagine a robobee's usefulness beyond crop pollination, particularly in the areas of surveillance, search-and-rescue, and environmental exploration in dangerous or far-reaching locations. On the lighter side, they can also play music.

But beyond all of the really cool trappings of these miniature autonomous flying robots and what they can do, there is the more important question of how they should do it. If given the opportunity to define how an entire group (hive?) of workers will complete a task, it's fascinating to note the types of behaviors that Harvard's scientists are modeling as the default for the robobees.

Greg Morrisett, Harvard’s Allen B. Cutting Professor of Computer Science, commented on what he believes to be the most interesting dilemma in the management of the collective swarm:

If I have a colony of 10,000 of these robots, how do I program them? Can I set up communication networks between them, and how do I do that in a way that’s still viable if one of the bees runs out of power? Can you do this in such a way where there is no centralized command and control?

Let’s think about this arrangement of components:

  • An automated, networked system of both workers and technology
  • Lightweight tools for large-scale communication and collaboration 

Now think about the qualities required of that system:

  • It must be decentralized and leaderless, enabling participants to quickly adapt to changes in their environment without receiving orders from one authority
  • It must tap into the collective power of the ecosystem rather than relying on the merits of an individual

This is starting to sound an awful lot like the contemporary open models of management and business that are discussed here on every day.

Leading thinkers at Harvard are choosing this kind of open, collaborative management as the best, most effective model for the robobees to follow – in essence, the best practice for letting a swarm do it's thing. After all, it's what nature has designed. A honeybee colony models a very structured yet decentralized system – led by a queen, of course, but with tasks carried out by portions of the swarm that remain flexible should they be redirected by the collective.

As we observe how the scientists are defining how their robobee swarms will operate, we should be asking what can we learn about how to structure the management of our organizations and people today?

Granted, the robobee analogy assumes that workers are mindless drones or blank slates, both willing and able to do what they are programmed to do. We know this isn't the case with a human workforce, but does the analogy still hold?

As for the robobees, let's just hope the swarms don't become self-aware.

Want to see the robobee in action?


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