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Progressive Robotic Self-Assembly

People: Jessica Banks


The concepts of self-assembly and reproduction pervade life processes and our notions of life's origins on the early earth. Certain molecules and organic compounds that are used by living cells have physical and chemical properties that allow them to hierarchically self-assemble into orderly structures at all size scales. In the human body, large molecules self-assemble into organelles which organize into cells, then tissues, then organs. Reproduction is considered by many to be a defining property of life. We propose to investigate these biological mechanisms from a robotic approach.

The immediate goal is to build a robot that joins together the same pieces out of which it is built. To simplify this problem, we chose to construct the robot out of a limited set of Lego parts analogous to nature's atomic building blocks: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorous. The robot is designed to assemble these blocks by combining minimal sensing and actuation with the passive incorporation of the environment in which it is situated. As such, we are hoping to draw an analogy between the robotic system and that of molecule structures which organize due to the energy flow of and reactions with the liquid water medium in which they are suspended.


The future goal is to try to answer questions about whether it is possible for machines to beget machines. We would like a robot to autonomously assemble copies of itself, either directly or through a sequence of intermediate robotic constructions. What does reproduction mean for a robot and what is required for this process? Can we extract a fixed point for robotic self-assembly that we can apply to other inorganic and organic systems?