The wisdom of the swarm: physics and behaviour

Super-organisms solve complex physiological problems collectively, sans plan or planner, on scales much larger than the individual. Motivated by observations in the field and in the lab, I will describe our attempts to understand how different orders of social insects – termites, bees and ants – actively regulate their micro-environment by constructing and deconstructing complex functional architectures. By linking physics and behavior on multiple scales using local sensing and action mediated by global fields, these examples point to a kind of embodied intelligence. To synthesize these complex collective behaviors in-vitro, I will close by describing our experiments using simple robots that perhaps sharpen some questions raised a long time ago by Tinbergen and others.