[Paleopsych] NYT: In Kingdom of Cockroaches, Leaders Are Made, Not Born

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In Kingdom of Cockroaches, Leaders Are Made, Not Born
NYT December 7, 2004

It might seem counterintuitive - or, let's face it, silly -
for scientists to create an artificial cockroach. Nature
has, after all, given us so many of them, and considerable
energies of humankind have been focused on exterminating

But an international team of scientists has done just that.

The purpose of the matchbox-size robo-roach is to study
"collective intelligence," said José Halloy, senior
research scientist at the Free University of Brussels, one
of the institutions collaborating on the project. Roaches,
ants, bees and many other creatures are gregarious and
share a kind of mob intellect, he said.

The researchers have found a chemical blend that smells
roachish enough for the impostors to trick real roaches
into believing they are part of the group, and even to
modify group behavior by getting the roaches to follow them
from dark to light places.

As tempting as it might be to imagine a pied piper leading
roaches into glue traps, Dr. Halloy said their goal was not
roach control. "Everybody is enthusiastic that we are going
to build a program to get rid of the cockroaches," he said.
"That is not the present stage or the aim at the moment."

When it comes to killing roaches, "classical methods are
better." Ultimately, he said, the technologies could be
used to make smarter computers and robots. "We want
machines to perform independently without human
intervention," Dr. Halloy said.

The researchers are studying collective behavior among many
species. Working closely with Jean-Louis Deneubourg of the
Center for Nonlinear Phenomena and Complex Systems at the
university, the researchers say they hope to influence
"collective choice" and eventually "control animal behavior
through the use of artificial systems" like herding sheep
without the menace of a sheepdog or persuading flocks of
grackles to leave parks.

The researchers say they are also making progress with
chickens, which exhibit a destructive "panic behavior" that
might be calmed with poultrybots.

"That's the dream," Dr. Halloy said. "But of course, we are
far away from that. What we are trying to do is prove the

"The idea of using microrobots to influence the collective
behavior of animals, and cockroaches in particular, is an
old idea of Jean Louis's, and we had some really hilarious
brainstorming sessions a few years ago talking about it,"
said another scientist in the field, Dr. Eric Bonabeau.

Dr. Bonabeau is chairman of Icosystem, a company in
Cambridge, Mass., and Paris that is exploring swarm
technology "for military purposes." That could make the
roaches sound almost cuddly.


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