The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots. (Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.)

Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or a thousand starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse. (Video below).

Read: Autonomous Kilobots Arrange Themselves into Vast, Complex Shapes

To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

Given a two-dimensional image, the Kilobots follow simple rules to form the same shape. Visually, the effect is similar to a flock of birds wheeling across the sky. “At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself,” says Radhika Nagpal. (Image courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.)

In a swarm of a thousand simple robots, errors like traffic jams (second from left) and imprecise positioning (far right) are common, so the algorithm incorporates rules that can help correct for these.

The thousand-Kilobot swarm provides a valuable platform for testing future collective AI algorithms.