US scientists have showed off tiny robots that can tackle tasks much like real-life termites, working collectively to build structures without following orders from a boss.
The mechanical creatures can tote bricks, build staircases or construct a pyramid, scientists from Harvard University said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.
"The key inspiration we took from termites is the idea that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor, and secondly that you can do it without everybody discussing explicitly what's going on, but just by modifying the environment," said principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, professor of computer science at Harvard.
Some direction is needed for the technological termites, known as TERMES, which were built as part of a four-year project.
Rather than obeying direct orders from an overseer, the robots rely on a concept known as stigmergy, which is a kind of implicit communication whereby the machines observe each others' changes to the environment and act accordingly, researchers said.
That way, they co-operate on building everything from castles to pyramids to staircases.
One robot on the team works in parallel with others, without knowledge of the overall process - who is building what, or where.
But somehow, it works, and a statement by the science team described the project as "an important proof of concept for scalable, distributed artificial intelligence".