Justin Werfel

Collective construction
RoboBees
Amoebots
Other swarm and bioinspired robotics
Social insects
Educational robotics
Molecular robotics
Evolutionary theory
Engineered morphogenesis
Ethnic violence
Cancer modeling
Computational neuroscience
Other fun stuff

I’m a senior research scientist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where I work on topics in complex and emergent systems, including swarm robotics, termite behavior, engineered molecular nanosystems, and evolutionary theory. I lead the Designing Emergence Laboratory, and work closely with the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group and other collaborators.

Other fun stuff
Computational neuroscience
Cancer modeling
Ethnic violence
Engineered morphogenesis
Evolutionary theory
Molecular robotics
Educational robotics
Social insects
Other swarm and bioinspired robotics
Amoebots
RoboBees
Collective construction



Research - Personal - CV



I’m interested in understanding and designing complex systems—systems of many independent interacting components, where we may understand each component very well in isolation, but when many of them get together, some interesting new high-level behavior emerges. Can we predict that collective outcome from the rules the low-level agents follow? And can we design low-level behaviors that guarantee a particular high-level result?


Collective construction

Termite colonies build tremendous, complicated mounds, acting with no central control or careful advance planning. These social insects provide a fantastic proof of principle that limited agents, acting independently with access only to local information, can build amazing things. How could we build and program robot swarms—artificial termite colonies—to build things for us? We want a human user to be able to give such a swarm a high-level description of what they want built, and have a guarantee that the system will build that thing, without the user having to be involved in the details of how it’s done.

Read more about earlier work or the more recent TERMES project, which I co-lead with Radhika Nagpal.

Media coverage: Our 2014 Science paper received a tremendous amount of attention, including coverage by CNN, NPR (All Things Considered), the BBC, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the LA Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, New Scientist, National Geographic, CNBC, CBS News, Scientific American, Wired, Popular Mechanics, Science Friday, and many others. TERMES has also been featured on Fox's Xploration Station, RoboNation TV, and exhibited at the London Science Museum and Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa). Older coverage of collective construction work includes Discover Magazine (April 2013), Communications of the ACM (March 2013), Reuters TV (June 2012), IEEE Spectrum (Automaton blog, June 2011), Boston Globe (March 2010), CNET News (July 2006), Wired (July 2006).

Publications:

Designing collective behavior in a termite-inspired robot construction team. Justin Werfel, Kirstin Petersen, and Radhika Nagpal. Science 343(6172): 754-758 (2014).
[For free access without a subscription, please follow the links here.]
[Featured on the cover; highlighted in Science’s "top 10 scientific achievements of 2014".]

TERMES: an autonomous robotic system for three-dimensional collective construction. Kirstin Petersen, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Robotics: Science and Systems VII, pp. 257-264 (2011).

Distributed multi-robot algorithms for the TERMES 3D collective construction system. Justin Werfel, Kirstin Petersen, and Radhika Nagpal. Workshop on Reconfigurable Modular Robotics, at IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2011.

Collective construction with robot swarms. Justin Werfel. In Morphogenetic Engineering, Rene Doursat, Hiroki Sayama, and Olivier Michel, eds., Springer, pp. 115-140 (2012).

Three-dimensional construction with mobile robots and modular blocks. Justin Werfel and Radhika Nagpal. International Journal of Robotics Research 27 (3-4): 463-479 (2008).

Collective construction of environmentally-adaptive structures. Justin Werfel, Donald Ingber, and Radhika Nagpal. IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2007.

Towards a common comparison framework for global-to-local programming of self-assembling robotic systems. Justin Werfel and Radhika Nagpal. Workshop on Self-Reconfigurable Robots & Systems and Applications, at IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2007.
Full version: Technical Report TR-14-07, Harvard EECS, 2007.

Robot search in 3D swarm construction. Justin Werfel. First IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems (SASO), pp. 363-366 (2007).

Anthills built to order: Automating construction with artificial swarms. Justin Werfel. Doctoral thesis, MIT, May 2006.

Extended stigmergy in collective construction. Justin Werfel and Radhika Nagpal. IEEE Intelligent Systems 21(2): 20-28 (2006).

Distributed construction by mobile robots with enhanced building blocks. Justin Werfel, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Daniela Rus, and Radhika Nagpal. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), pp. 2787-2794 (2006).

Three-dimensional directed construction. Justin Werfel and Radhika Nagpal. Workshop on Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robots, at Robotics: Science and Systems II, 2006.

Collective construction using LEGO robots. Crystal Schuil, Matthew Valente, Justin Werfel, and Radhika Nagpal. Robot Exhibition, Twenty-First National Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), 2006. [Received Technical Innovation Award for "elegant connection of theory and design".]

Building patterned structures with robot swarms. Justin Werfel, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Radhika Nagpal. Nineteenth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), pp.1495-1502 (2005).

Construction by robot swarms using extended stigmergy. Justin Werfel, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Radhika Nagpal. AI Memo AIM-2005-011, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), 2005.

Building blocks for multi-agent construction. Justin Werfel. Distributed Autonomous Robotic Systems 6 (DARS), 2004.



RoboBees

Inspired by honeybees, the purpose of the Micro Air Vehicles project is to develop hardware and algorithms for swarms of thousands of tiny, self-contained flying robots, to perform tasks such as commercial pollination. I’ve been involved with the "Colony" part of this project, investigating coordination mechanisms for autonomous robots with extremely limited capabilities.

Publications:

Positional communication and private information in honeybee foraging models. Peter Bailis, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. International Conference on Swarm Intelligence (ANTS), 2010. (Best Student Paper Award)



Slime mold robots (Amoebots)

Cellular slime molds have a life cycle in which millions of individual amoebae stream together into multicellular slugs, which then crawl as a single coordinated unit. We’re interested in creating a robot version, partly because it would be just about the coolest thing ever but also because such a robot could be used for things like extraplanetary exploration, with individual modules exploring on their own for fast parallel coverage or coming together for improved mobility to overcome obstacles.

Publications:

Coordinating collective locomotion in an amorphous modular robot. Chih-Han Yu, Justin Werfel, and Radhika Nagpal. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2010.



Other swarm and bioinspired robotics

Publications:

Massive uniform manipulation: controlling large populations of simple robots with a common input signal. Aaron Becker, Golnaz Habibi, Justin Werfel, Michael Rubenstein, and James McLurkin. IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2013.

Collective transport of complex objects by simple robots: theory and experiments. Michael Rubenstein, Adrian Cabrera, Justin Werfel, Golnaz Habibi, James McLurkin, and Radhika Nagpal. International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems (AAMAS), 2013.

Collective decision-making in multi-agent systems by implicit leadership. Chih-Han Yu, Justin Werfel, and Radhika Nagpal. International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems (AAMAS), 2010.

Bioinspired environmental coordination in spatial computing systems. Justin Werfel, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Donald Ingber. Workshop on Spatial Computing, at Second IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems (SASO), 2008.

Research, robots, and reality: a statement on current trends in biorobotics. Ernst Niebur et al. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24(6):1072-1073 (2001).



Social insects

The insects that inspire much of the work above have a tremendous amount to teach us about how they work together. We’re studying the detailed behavior of mound-building termites, with the goal of establishing in effect what program the termites are running, and connecting these individual behaviors with the geometry of the mounds they build.

Publications:

Arrestant property of recently manipulated soil on Macrotermes michaelseni as determined through visual tracking and automatic labeling of individual termite behaviors. Kirstin Petersen, Paul Bardunias, Nils Napp, Justin Werfel, Radhika Nagpal, and J. Scott Turner. Behavioural Processes 116:8-11 (2015).

3D tracking of building processes in Macrotermes. Kirstin Petersen, Nils Napp, Jao-ke Chin-Lee, Justin Werfel, and Radhika Nagpal. Workshop on Visual Observation and Analysis of Animal and Insect Behavior, at 21st International Conference on Pattern Recognition (ICPR), 2012.



Educational robotics

I’m involved in various educational robotics projects, including the development of Root, and the creation of an i2 Camp course on introductory programming and robotics based around Mike Rubenstein’s AERobot.

Media coverage: includes The Atlantic, IEEE Spectrum [guest article], Boston Globe, Mashable (late 2016); Wired, Boston Globe, Reuters, PC Magazine, Mashable, Engadget, Gizmodo, The Week, Slate, CBC (spring 2016); Wired (November 2014).

Publications:

AERobot: an affordable one-robot-per-student system for early robotics education. Michael Rubenstein, Bo Cimino, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2015.

Embodied teachable agents: learning by teaching robots. Justin Werfel. New Research Frontiers for Intelligent Autonomous Systems (NRF-IAS-2014), 2014.



Molecular robotics

Technologies for manipulating DNA and other biomolecules have reached a point where we can use them to construct nanoscale devices. This is swarm robotics on another scale altogether—extremely limited agents, in truly enormous numbers. We’re working on ways to advance the capabilities of both the individual agents and the collectives that comprise them, looking to extend traditionally macroscale swarm-robotic tasks into the nanoscale domain, including exploration, mapping, and construction.

Publications:

DyNAMiC Workbench: an integrated development environment for dynamic DNA nanotechnology. Casey Grun, Justin Werfel, David Yu Zhang, and Peng Yin. Journal of the Royal Society Interface (2015).



Evolutionary theory

If evolution is driven by competition, and an organism’s main competitors are others of its same species, why should cooperation be as widespread and successful as it evidently is? Modeling studies have helped elucidate mechanisms behind the evolution of altruistic and self-restraining behaviors, relevant to issues including multilevel selection, intraspecific communication and sociality, and senescence and mortality.

Other work looks at questions relevant to evolutionary algorithms and engineering applications. How can coevolving populations avoid "Red Queen" arms races with no net progress against an external metric? Can evolving populations be harnessed to perform useful computations?

Media coverage: includes The Guardian (November 2016); Science News, Phys.org, io9, Vice Motherboard (June 2015); Dallas Morning News (July 2004).

Publications:

Programmed death is favored by natural selection in spatial systems. Justin Werfel, Donald E. Ingber, and Yaneer Bar-Yam. Physical Review Letters 114: 238103 (2015).

Theory and associated phenomenology for intrinsic mortality arising from natural selection. Justin Werfel, Donald E. Ingber, and Yaneer Bar-Yam. arXiv.org (2015).

Multilevel and kin selection in a connected world. M.J. Wade, D.S. Wilson, C. Goodnight, D. Taylor, Y. Bar-Yam, M.A.M. de Aguiar, B. Stacey, J. Werfel, G.A. Hoelzer, E.D. Brodie III, P. Fields, F. Breden, T.A. Linksvayer, J.A. Fletcher, P.J. Richerson, J.D. Bever, J.D. Van Dyken, and P. Zee. Nature 463: E8-E9 (2010).

The evolution of reproductive restraint through social communication. Justin Werfel and Yaneer Bar-Yam. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 101(30): 11019-11024 (2004).

Modeling, communication, and global catastrophe. Justin Werfel and Yaneer Bar-Yam. Knowledge Magazine 1(1):5-13 (2009).

Resource sharing and coevolution in evolving cellular automata. Justin Werfel, Melanie Mitchell, and James P. Crutchfield. IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation 4:388-393 (2000).

Implementing universal computation in an evolutionary system. Justin Werfel. AI Memo AIM-2002-010, MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, 2002.



Engineered morphogenesis

Morphogenesis, the process of development from a single cell to a complex multicellular organism, is one of the great examples of robust collective behavior. How could we specify genetic programs to grow plants and animals in specific forms or body plans we want?

Publications:

Biologically realistic primitives for engineered morphogenesis. Justin Werfel. International Conference on Swarm Intelligence (ANTS), 2010.



Ethnic violence

Relatively simple models can be startlingly effective at predicting locations where violence between ethnic groups is likely to occur—and likewise suggesting interventions that may be successful at promoting peace.

Media coverage: includes Wired and Discover Magazine.

Publications:

Good fences: the importance of setting boundaries for peaceful coexistence. Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon, Justin Werfel, Alexander S. Gard-Murray, Shlomiya Bar-Yam, Andreas Gros, Ramon Xulvi-Brunet, and Yaneer Bar-Yam. PLOS ONE 9(5): e95660 (2014).



Cancer modeling

A tissue is a complex system of cells interacting: exchanging signals, exerting physical forces on one another, and otherwise shaping their environment. Computational models let us look at both cell-level and tissue-level phenomena, and explore possibilities like how cell interactions could evoke or reverse a cancerous phenotype even without genetic mutation.

Media coverage: Biomedical Picture of the Day.

Publications:

How changes in extracellular matrix mechanics and gene expression variability might combine to drive cancer progression. Justin Werfel, Silva Krause, Ashley G. Bischof, Robert J. Mannix, Heather Tobin, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Robert M. Bellin, and Donald E. Ingber. PLOS ONE 8(10): e76122 (2013).



Computational neuroscience

The brain is another canonical complex system: collections of billions of neurons give rise to the nearly magical phenomenon of consciousness. Are there learning processes we can formally analyze, that could both realistically be taking place in biological cells and operate on relevant time scales? Can we extract signals from EEG recordings that are reliably correlated with intent, and could be used as a controller for a prosthesis or communication device? What mechanisms of synaptic transmission are necessary to produce certain observed neuronal firing patterns?

Publications:

Learning curves for stochastic gradient descent in linear feedforward networks. Justin Werfel, Xiaohui Xie, and H. Sebastian Seung. Neural Computation 17(12): 2699-2718 (2005).

BCI Competition 2003--data set Ia: combining gamma-band power with slow cortical potentials to improve single-trial classification of electroencephalographic signals. Brett Mensh, Justin Werfel, and H. Sebastian Seung. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering 51(6):1052-1056 (2004).

Learning curves for stochastic gradient descent in linear feedforward networks. Justin Werfel, Xiaohui Xie, and H. Sebastian Seung. Neural Information Processing Systems 16 (NIPS), 2004.

Neural network models for zebra finch song production and reinforcement learning. Justin Werfel. Master’s thesis, MIT, August 2001.




I’m a big proponent of the idea that the things one does outside work are a major part of what makes life interesting. For me, these have included activities like—

performing arts: juggling, storytelling [e.g., The Moth (StorySLAM Winner), MassMouth (annual competition finals: 4x finalist, 1x 2nd place, 2x Audience Choice award), Story Collider], a cappella and light opera, musical theater, pantomime;

visual arts: glassblowing, blacksmithing;

writing (Active member of the SFWA);

solo sports: skiing, diving, long-distance and mountain unicycling.