Unit 10: Unexpected Outcomes and Emergent Behaviour

This unit discusses the concept of emergent behavior in the field of robotics. Emergent behavior is the phenomena when the whole is greater than the parts. It is a characteristic of complex systems where many individual components with simple behaviours combine to create behaviour that is new and complex as a result of the interactions of these simple systems.

Table of Contents

Reading – Chapter 18: When the Unexpected Happens Emergent Behavior

Complex behaviors arising from simple systems are an important aspect of robotics and of developing robotic controls. Depending upon the behaviors emerging and the view of the observing such behaviors can be viewed as either being beneficial and being a feature, or detrimental and thus viewed as a bug. Emergent behaviors are a complex topic that have occupied philosophers, biologists and many others as a rich field off study with important applications in a wide number of fields including robotics. Further emergent behaviors can be expected given a set of interactions, but new combinations or slightly different combinations can lead to unexpected emergent behavior as well.

Food For Thought 18-1

Besides wall-following, or following (servoing to some target), which is a natural behavior to produce via emergence, can you think of others you might want to implement this way?

I believe that there are many complex behaviors that can arise as the result of following some simple rules. I believe that there are some philosophers who believe that consciousness and personality is the complex behavior that results from many relatively “simple” biological functions combining to create something that is more than the sum of the parts. One of the best examples I have heard of emergent behavior or properties is from my biology classes where we talked about how a cell is a simple component. yet a combination of cells can result in a tissue, and a combination of tissues leads to an organ. While a combination of organs leads to an organism. Each level is more complex than the last and the behavior of each layer increases in complexity until we have independent organisms with distinct personalities. I believe that in some works of fiction I have encountered this idea is explored as a possible way in which Artificial intelligence may be developed, and I would be surprised if there has not been serious academic and philosophical work on this concept. So consciousness may be an emergent behavior, but there are also many other systems and behaviors that may also be considered as emergent such as cultures and economies. For robotics, wall following and flocking are easily understood examples, however roombas are also based upon a similiar concept. Where a combination of interactions from some simple systems allows for a robot that is able to clean an area and vacuum effectively.

Food For Thought 18-2

Can you think of ways of using emergent behavior to do something quite complicated, such as build a bridge or a wall or a building? Ants do it all the time, see Chapter 20.

Yes, if you are familiar with star trek the borg display emergent behavior. Or in the Stargate series there were replicators that were able to create complex systems and creations. In both of these cases though the behavior was unchecked and the system became rampant and a serious danger to the universe. On a smaller scale, there was a book by Yahtzee Croshaw entitled “Jam” which explored the grey goo scenario. Where self replicating nanobots grow out of control and end up destroying most of Australia by creating a raspberry jam looking and smelling mess. So we have many examples in fiction where the idea of emergent behaviors from simple systems might create a cascade that threatens and destroys. However, there are other examples in fiction where simple machines are able to be combined and leveraged to be of great benefit. For example, 3d-printing robots in space could create self sustaining space habitats and allow humanity to reach farther than we have ever been able to reach into the stars before. A further example of this is the idea of the von Neumann probe which is a self replicating probe that is able to explore the universe while replicating itself. Such machines could theoretically be used for many purposes including that of creating a Dyson Sphere around a star for a space faring civilization.


Emergent behavior is an interesting topic, and I enjoyed revisiting some of the concepts that far reaching emergent behavior might lead too. I found the following video to be an interesting summary of some of the concepts that I was discussing in this unit.

Shawn Ritter

December 9th, 2021

Feature Image: Photo by Poranimm Athithawatthee: https://www.pexels.com/photo/macro-photo-of-five-orange-ants-842401/

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