Many structures built by social insects are the outcome of a process of self-organization, in which the repeated actions of the insects interact over time with the changing physical environment to produce a characteristic end state. A major mediating factor is stigmergy, the elicitation of specific environment-changing behaviors by the sensory effects of local environmental changes produced by previous behavior. A typical task involving stigmergic self-organization is brood sorting: Many ant species sort their brood so that items at similar stages of development are grouped together and separated from items at different stages of development. This article examines the operation of stigmergy and self-organization in a homogeneous group of physical robots, in the context of the task of clustering and sorting Frisbees of two different types. Using a behavioral rule set simpler than any yet proposed for ant sorting, and having no capacity for spatial orientation or memory, the robots are able to achieve effective clustering and sorting showing all the signs of self-organization. It is argued that the success of this demonstration is crucially dependent on the exploitation of real-world physics, and that the use of simulation alone to investigate stigmergy may fail to reveal its power as an evolutionary option for collective life forms.
Now at The Cyber Life Institute, CyberLife Technology Ltd., Quayside, Bridge Street, Cambridge CB5 8AB, UK.