In Prey, scientists at a ‘nanorobotics company’ called Xymos developed tiny flying robots powered by solar power, capable of communicating with each other, learning, innovating and even reproducing.
Harvard’s self-organising thousand-robot swarm can’t do all of that but it can arrange itself into complex shapes on command.
For instance if they get a command: “Form a sea star shape,” sent via infra-red, the robots will start blinking at one another and then they gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star.
The robots are just a few centimetres across, standing on three pin-like legs. Each robot moves using two vibrating motors that allow it to slide across a surface on its rigid legs. An infrared transmitter and receiver allow it to communicate with a few of its neighbours and measure their proximity
The bots can correct their own mistakes. If a traffic jam forms or a robot moves off-course – errors that become much more common in a large group – nearby robots sense the problem and co-operate to fix it.
As always the software makes all the difference and the nanobots in Crichton’s book are programmed by an evil scientist do foul deeds like killing animals and getting inside people so they can flow into another person via a kiss.
Hopefully the new breakthrough won’t put the Harvard girls and boys off snogging.