"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Robot infiltrators sway roaches’ group decisions

Nov. 16, 2007
Courtesy Science
and World Science staff

An­y­one who has longed for some re­venge against pesky cock­roaches may take sat­is­fac­tion in the lat­est re­search on the crit­ters.

In a mach­i­a­vel­lian, though non-lethal ex­pe­ri­ment, sci­en­tists planted a robotic “cock­roach” in­to a group of real cock­roaches. The ma­chine in­sin­u­at­ed it­self in­to the bug so­ci­e­ty enough to start guid­ing its col­lec­tive de­ci­sions, prompt­ing it to make choices that over­rode nat­u­ral in­stincts.

A "roach-bot." (Courtesy ULB-EPFL)

Jose Hal­loy of the Un­iver­sité Li­bre de Brux­elles in Bel­gium and French and Swiss col­leagues wanted to study how an­i­mals that move in swarms make group de­ci­sions and trav­el to­geth­er. 

The sci­en­tists built a se­ries of robotic cock­roaches, which did­n’t ac­tu­ally look like cock­roaches, al­though they were roughly cockroach-sized. More im­por­tant­ly, they smelled like cock­roaches – they were coat­ed in a blend of chem­i­cals si­m­i­lar to those on the sur­face of a cock­roach.

As the robots were ac­cept­ed in­to the group, they be­gan to take part in the group decision-making pro­cess and were able to in­flu­ence it.

For ex­am­ple, cock­roaches like the dark; if giv­en a choice of shel­ters, they tend to pick the darker one. But the “roach-bots,” pro­grammed by the re­search­ers, were able to coax the group to choose a light­er shel­ter over a dark one. The sci­en­tists hope the study and others like it will shed light on  how an­i­mals be­have and make de­ci­sions in groups. The find­ings ap­pear in the Nov. 16 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

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Anyone who has longed for some revenge against pesky cockroaches may take satisfaction in the latest research on the critters. In a machiavellian, though non-lethal experiment, scientists planted a robotic “cockroach” into a group of real cockroaches. The machine insinuated itself into the bug society enough to start guiding its collective decisions, prompting it to make choices that overrode natural instincts. Jose Halloy of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Brussels, Belgium and a team of researchers from France and Switzerland wanted to study how animals that move in swarms make group decisions and travel together. The scientists built a series of robotic cockroaches, which didn’t actually look like cockroaches, although they were roughly cockroach-sized. More importantly, they smelled like cockroaches – they were coated in a blend of chemicals similar to those on the surface of the cockroach’s body. As the robots were accepted into the group, they began to take part in the group decision-making process and were able to influence it. For example, cockroaches like the dark, and, if given a choice between two shelters, they’ll usually pick the darker one. But, the roach-bots, which had been programmed by the researchers, were able to coax the group to choose a lighter shelter over a dark one. The scientists hope that this research and other studies with animal-like robots will help us understand how animals behave and make decisions in groups. The research appears in the 16 November issue of the research journal Science.