The video: MIT's Patrick Bechon and Jean-Jacques Slotine have come up with a novel way to get robots to synchronize their activities, drawing inspiration from how bacteria interact. And to demonstrate their work, Bechon and Slotine chose a dance number that has seen more than its share of inspiring ensemble performances: Michael Jackson's "Thriller." The researchers programmed a group of humanoid robots from Aldebaran Robotics to dance in unison by sensing their environment and coordinating their movements through a central server — rather than trying to awkwardly follow one another directly. (Watch a video below. ) This way, even if a robot gets out of step, it can catch up with its peers by communicating with the hub. Bacteria and some insects employ a similar technique — called quorum sensing — by sending out molecules that help them figure out how many organisms are around, and then coordinate their activities accordingly.
The reaction: We shrugged when robots started making sandwiches and guarding prisoners, and "we gave a collective 'meh' when they mastered darts," says Keith Wagstaff at TIME. But robots dancing in unison to "Thriller" is "something mankind can't ignore." But this "stunning" use of quorum sensing isn't "just about trying to create humanoid machines that can better entertain us," says Bob Yirka at Phys.org. If we can harness this idea on a larger scale, hundreds of robots could build or accomplish huge things "defined by their human masters." See for yourself: