Radhika Nagpal, the Harvard computer scientist whose self-organizing swarm robotics are today’s state of the art in collective artificial intelligence, has been named among Nature’s 10, the ten scientists and engineers who “made a difference” in 2014.

Nagpal is the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

In February of this year, her research group announced the creation of a robotic construction crew, inspired by termites, which is capable of assembling blocks into 3-D structures without any human intervention. And in August, Nagpal’s group unveiled its thousand-robot swarm, a massive assembly of small robots that collectively arrange themselves into shapes, interacting much like a school of fish or a flock of birds. Dubbed “the first thousand-robot flash mob,” these Kilobots demonstrate the power of computationally simple programs to collaboratively and autonomously execute complex behaviors.

“The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple — and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” Nagpal said. “At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself.”

Nagpal’s research sheds light on the nature of coordination in large groups in order to better understand natural systems like social insect colonies and multicellular self-organization, and to engineer robust and powerful technologies like multi-robot systems for use in search and rescue, construction, or agriculture.

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