I swear this concept is based on the Rudy Rucker thought experiment turned into the novel The Hacker and the Ants, in which a programmer models virtual ants to work out a system of robotics driven by emergent behavior and mesh networking. That was in the early 1990s, when Rucker was a programmer at Autodesk, Inc., writing 3D CAD/CAM modeling software as his day job. With the state of the technology at that point, that story was officially science fiction; he could have copyrighted the concept, but there was no way to actually build any of it in the real world, therefore no patent. Pretty much the same way Aurthur C. Clarke lost a billion dollars in his spare time when he invented the geosynchronous satellite during WWII; it would be almost 20 years before anything could actually launch into terrestrial orbit, and more years after that before any of it could reach the geosynchronous sweet spot 23,400 miles up.
But now, decades later, the folks at Festo in Germany have done it; using a combination of 3D Printing, Piezoelectrics, Mesh Networking, Neural Networking, Heuristic Extrapolation, and just damn good programming, they have created Rucker’s Ants. And yes, it does look like they have hit on a system that supports Emergent Behavior as well. Mind, these ant-like androids are the size of your hand, but that is useful for a lot of tasks, and as they continue to develop the project, they will no doubt be able to miniaturize them more each year (scaling them up was never a problem). I have to wonder if Rucker’s new ant story, Attack Of The Giant Ants, was created once he learned of this project. Thanks to New Scientist for the heads up on this one!