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File Sharing May Pave the Way for Swarm Robotics

File Sharing May Pave the Way for Swarm Robotics

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Published by bizso09
File sharing may pave the way for swarm robotics. Are we there yet? Find out now.
File sharing may pave the way for swarm robotics. Are we there yet? Find out now.

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Published by: bizso09 on Jan 07, 2010
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02/11/2011

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File sharing may pave the way for swarm robotics
Are we there yet? 
By Zsolt Bitvai
They are among us
Swarm of futuristic looking octopus robots are drilling their way to an underground human city. Alone, eachsentinel would fail. But their power resides in their collective entity: the Swarm. Although this is just a scenefrom a popular sci-fi block buster, The Matrix, swarm robotics is a fast growing research area in the field of Artificial Intelligence. What is more, the basis for the technology is already there.The world of body cells bears the habitat of some rather odd looking creatures: Nanobots. Molecular technologyexpert Dr. Eric Drexler from MIT indicates that these robots are so tiny that they may become the building blocks for any kind of material, thus could even self replicate by converting matter they come in contact with toclones, a process known as ecophagy. For not long, everything could be turned into grey goo. Is this too far fetched? Not so much, if we continue to develop the technology with such a blazing speed.If minuscule robots could alter the world so fundamentally, what about in the scale of the Universe? NASA iscontemplating a moon base to be built by an army of robots, all cooperating to achieve a common goal. It is not just America that has recognised the potential of this high-tech branch of science - Europe is a big player as well.Flock of robots could not only be used for base establishments, but also do maintenance work around spacecraftor explore planets in the outer space. It isn't over yet. Professor Marco Dorigo from the Université Libre deBruxelles has recently suggested discarding our conservative views on transportation - Why not could aspacecraft be simply a collection of self assembled robots?You might think that all this is way too futuristic. I urge you to consider the following: US military isexperimenting with drone vehicles that are either autonomous or operated remotely by a single person.According to robotics expert Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield, this innovation couldsoon become a new standard for warfare. No people, no miseries, which means ethical responsibility of starting awar may vanish into the past along with any conscience left. Luckily, not all future scenarios result in a postapocalyptic world. Pacifists may rather prefer a handful of bots to irrigate their peach tree plantations.The question a lot of people are asking right now is how are going to get there, if we want to get there at all? Theclue lies in where we, humans, originate: Nature.Acting collectively in a swarm is so efficient that nature hasthousands of examples of it. Even though to the naïve observer ants move in a haphazard fashion, ant colonies are believed to be organised to the perfection. Schooling have long beenregarded as an efficient way for fish to defend themselvesagainst predators. If we take a look at ourselves, to the nakedeye a metropolitan city seems chaotic, but on a closer look all pieces fit together. Nevertheless, with millions of road deaths ayear, our traffic system is still far less efficient than that of leaf hoppers, which avoid collision with more than a thousand of them a square meter. Some people even go to the extremes. Peter Russell, British spiritualist, argues that theinvention of high speed internet has created a Global Brain, with human society being the body of a giganticEarth organism, Gaia.So nature has it. We have it. What if robot will have it... 1
 Power in numbers.
 
Ashes to ashes
By now scientists have realised that putting some robots together in a sandbox and turning them all on will notresult in swarming. In other words, in order to induce emergent behaviour, we need to have swarm intelligence inthe first place, which is something that has evolved in nature through millions of years. Technically speaking, aswarm of robots would consists of a network of communicating agents, which can be reconfigured any time, andare able to interact with the environment. Furthermore, the swarm can achieve goals that are impossible for theindividual members alone.As with any constructions, we should start with the most fundamental element, the agent itself. What are thedesired properties of an agent? They first of all are autonomous. That is, they make decisions on their own, anddo not receive them from a central command dispatcher. This may sound alarming to you, but bear with me...this brings us to the second characteristic.Agents are selfish in nature. They are willing to give resources to other agents, provided that it is for their own benefit. In other words, all agents seek is to maximise their utilities. To make things little bit more complicated,we associate actions with costs and rewards as well. Therefore, it is their marginal utility that individual peers tryto maximise, and thus have things with hight utility on top of their preference list. Indeed, they are just like us...You may wonder that this all sounds perfect in theory, but how do you go about the implementation in real life,in which not only the environment but agents' preferences change non-stop? Although the task may soundimpossible for many, Andrey Markov (1859-1922), Russian mathematician, made an attempt at it. His attemptwas so successful that it is now called the Markov Decision Process. In his view, we cannot foresee the future,nonetheless we are able to predict it. The prediction can occur two ways: deterministic or non-deterministic. If we assume the formal one, then a future state of the world can be reached by a transition from the present state,which inherently holds all the information we need. Could this work? Well, yes and no. In a closed environmentwhere we know all the factors, yes. However, in open environments, like real life, things get a bit more intricate.There are so many external factors to calculate with that we can only know the probability of going into a futurestate.Moreover, no-one is in control in a swarm, agents are effectively decentralised. Thus, no-one coordinates peer  behaviour either. That's because agents have only limited information about the world around them. They only possess a local view of the swarm, and they only interact with their close neighbours. As a result, they cannotdetermine the state of the world for sure, only the probability of existing in a certain state - their Belief state . Infancy words, they apply non-deterministic Markov Decision process in a partially observable world for their  behaviour. To decide what utility an action or inaction would bring to them, they associate a discount factor tothe expected utility of their deed, preferring the ones which are nearer in the future to the ones that are farther away. Now, let's imagine that we stand in a crowd at a concert and can't see anything. We ask our close neighbourswhat's happening, and they all start talking at the same time. In the end, we get no meaningful information out of the babel whatsoever. Likewise in a swarm, simultaneous communication could result in an overwhelmingoverflow and can put a heavy strain on resources. This event is called the Tragedy of Commons. To prevent it,agents make only ad-hoc connections and have a limit on their maximum number of concurrent links.Because they are so basic elements, agents mustn't be complex entities. In fact, they are designed to be verysimple in nature, and therefore they follow very basic rules. The beauty of this behaviour is that interaction between them can be described by conducting simple games. As a result, game theory thrives in multi agentsystems, often dubbed MAS.Provided that agents are autonomous and selfish, what happens when their goals are not in line with the“common” goal of the swarm? Or even worse, they have malicious intentions? Surprised? In the world of swarmrobotics malicious peers present a significant risk. More on this later...2
 
The bigger picture
We have looked at the building blocks - the peers or agents. Next challenge is how do we get any meaningfulcollective behaviour out of them? Well, the answer can be quite disappointing to some: to put it bluntly, we don't.The harsh reality is that more often than not the actions of individual agents, all rigidly pursuing their owninterest, cancel each other out. The tricky part is to find an algorithm that after several interactions, tend toconverge to a harmonised behaviour, the Nash Equilibrium. The challenge is even harder, if this equilibriumchanges all the time because of varying environment, as described in the Moving Target problem.Provided that it is achieved, emergent behaviour would bring about an increase in the global utility of thesystem, which affirms that simple interactions between peers do not produce a zero sum game. The resultingcomplex behaviour would shift the swarm to a new level. For example, it has been shown that the cognitive power of a swarm of robots equipped with sensors can be significantly higher than that of its peers.At this point, MAS have several advantages to conventional monolithic (central) systems. The very first one isthat being distributed there is no need for a central command unit. Computationally speaking, these networks arevery efficient and non-demanding, which manifests in enormous computational capability as the load is sharedamong the links.Secondly, it has been confirmed that if left alone without human intervention, resource allocation in MAS tendsto be Paraeto efficient, that is the best possible. This not only minimises idle time but also enables for a dynamicstructure. We all know the phrase: the more the merrier. Is this true for swarm robotics? In the above examples -ant colony, fish school and metropolitan city - peers are able to join and leave the swarm whenever they want to.This openness entails tremendous flexibility. New peers also mean new resources, and virtually there is no limiton how much the group can expand, thus it is incredibly scalable. The cost increase of locating resources in acentral system is exponential, while in MAS it is only logarithmic. This makes it possibles for the swarm toeffectively reorganise itself in response to a changing environment.
1
The weakest link 
Every organisation is as strong as its weakest link. One major concern about centrally operated systems isfailure. Several layers of security must be installed in order to prevent system shut downs. Losses skyrocket asmillion-dollar missions shipwreck unless fault is located and fixed as soon as possible. So how do multi agentsystems compare in this regard? The good news is that they are virtually failure proof and extremely robust. The bad news is that this is only half the truth. On the one hand, it can be pointed out that because there is noextensive dependence on either a central unit or other peers, there is no need for prevention measures either. If a
1 It is worth mentioning the fact that MAS resembles open market economies a great deal.
3
 Are you prepared to drift with the tide?

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