Friday, April 9, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: Swarm Intelligence

In a lot of my writing I like to look at engineering projects of vast scale, like placing the planet Mercury in the shadow of a 10,000 square kilometer solar panel placed at the Lagrange point between the Sun Mercury.

Projects on this scale are beyond human’s ability to do using current construction management techniques. The details and logistics would either simply overwhelm the planners or slow the project down to the point it would take generations to complete. So in order for it to be done in a reasonable time, a new way of getting things done needs to be developed.

Like most things nature has already beat us to the answer. If you take the common ant that crawls along your kitchen floor it's pretty retarded. In the movie Antz they showed a fairly realistic depiction of an individual ant’s intelligence when a line of ants were walking through the forest and a leaf fell down breaking the line in half. The first ant that came to the leaf screamed out, “I’m lost!”

As retarded as these ants are as individuals they manage to build incredible colonies that are as complex as some of our greatest cities. They do this through something called Swarm Intelligence.

Instead of the Central Planning models that humans use they have a very simple pattern of “If-Then” commands that they use. If they run across a path laid down by another ant they follow it. If that ant has found food it will leave a stronger path as it moves back and forth between the food and colony. This attracts more ants to the path who follow it to the food making the path a stronger attractant, getting more ants to follow it to the food. This feedback continues until the food source is swarmed and no more ants can get to the food. At this point the second set of If-Then statements kicks in and the newest ants see they can’t get at the food and resume scavenging for more food. All of this is done with no central planning just individuals carrying out some very simple instructions.

This same concept could be used by humans to do huge projects, like strip-mining the Moon, on a very short time scale.

With 3-D printing, the ability to take the raw molecules and place them molecule by molecule on top of each other to build complex machines, and simple computer chips the Moon could be strip mined in a generation.

A small ship could bring a 3-D printer and crude refiner, and the raw materials to build a few explorer/mining robots. These robots would look for the raw materials to build more explorer/mining robots. When one of them found a rich source of materials the others could follow mining it and bringing it back to the refiner that would turn the raw ore into material to make more explorer/mining robots.

When the refiner got a backlog of raw ore it would trigger the 3-D printer to make another refiner, then go back to making explorer/mining robots. When the amount of refined material became too great the 3-D printer would make a carbon copy of itself that the explorer/mining robots would take along with a refiner to the richest source of raw ore. This process would continue without any human intervention.

As they built more and more copies of themselves they would spread across the Moon turning the raw ore into highly processed materials that could then be used by humans, without humans having to take part in the mining process.

This idea of Swarm Intelligence could be modified to practically any massive scale engineering project and transform the entire Solar System into a playground for humanity. That will lead to a fantastic future.

1 comment:

Stephanie Barr said...

This I can totally buy.