I’m interested in understanding and designing complex systemssystems 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?
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 swarmsartificial termite coloniesto 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.
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 our 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).
An autonomous vault-building robot system for creating spanning structures. Nathan Melenbrink, Ariel Wang, and Justin Werfel. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2021.
Autonomous anchoring for robotic construction. Nathan Melenbrink, Katja Rinderspacher, Achim Menges, and Justin Werfel. Automation in Construction 120: 103391 (2020).
On-site autonomous construction robots: towards unsupervised building. Nathan Melenbrink, Justin Werfel, and Achim Menges. Automation in Construction 119: 103312 (2020).
Autonomous sheet pile driving robots for soil stabilization. Nathan Melenbrink and Justin Werfel. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2019.
A swarm robot ecosystem for autonomous construction, 2017. Nathan Melenbrink and Justin Werfel. In Robotic Building: Architecture in the Age of Automation, Gilles Retsin, Manuel Jimenez, Mollie Claypool, and Vicente Soler, eds., München: DETAIL, pp. 88-90 (2019).
Local force cues for strength and stability in a distributed robotic construction system. Nathan Melenbrink and Justin Werfel. Swarm Intelligence 12(2): 129-153 (2018).
Toward automating construction with decentralized climbing robots and environmentally adaptive, functionally specified structures. Justin Werfel and Paul Kassabian. In Active Matter, Skylar Tibbits, ed., MIT Press, pp. 247-254 (2017).
Towards force-aware robot collectives for on-site construction. Nathan Melenbrink, Paul Kassabian, Achim Menges, and Justin Werfel. Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), pp. 382-391 (2017).
Using local force measurements to guide construction by distributed climbing robots. Nathan Melenbrink, Panagiotis Michalatos, Paul Kassabian, and Justin Werfel. IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), pp. 4333-4340 (2017).
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.
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), pp. 2345-2352 (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.
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.
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.
Media coverage: includes Harvard Magazine.
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.
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
Strategies for the design and operation of resilient extraterrestrial habitats. Shirley J. Dyke, Karen Marais, Ilias Bilionis, Justin Werfel, and Ramesh Malla. SPIE Smart Structures + Nondestructive Evaluation Conference, 2021.
Collective transport of unconstrained objects via implicit coordination and adaptive compliance. Nicole E. Carey and Justin Werfel. IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2021.
Self-organization and artificial life. Carlos Gershenson, Vito Trianni, Justin Werfel, and Hiroki Sayama. Artificial Life 26(3): 391-408 (2020).
Self-organization and artificial life: a review. Carlos Gershenson, Vito Trianni, Justin Werfel, and Hiroki Sayama. International Conference on Artificial Life (ALIFE), 2018.
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).
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.
Media coverage: includes Knowable Magazine.
Validating a termite-inspired construction coordination mechanism using an autonomous robot. Nicole E. Carey, Paul Bardunias, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Frontiers in Robotics and AI 8: 645728 (2021).
The extension of internal humidity levels beyond the soil surface facilitates mound expansion in Macrotermes. Paul Bardunias, Daniel S. Calovi, Nicole Carey, Rupert Soar, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287: 20200894 (2020).
Differential construction response to humidity by related species of mound-building termites. Nicole E. Carey, Daniel S. Calovi, Paul M. Bardunias, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Journal of Experimental Biology 222: jeb212274 (2019).
Surface curvature guides early construction activity in mound-building termites. Daniel S. Calovi, Paul Bardunias, Nicole Carey, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 374(1774): 20180374 (2019).
Excavation and aggregation as organizing factors in de novo construction by mound-building termites. Ben Green, Paul Bardunias, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284:20162730 (2017).
Fast, accurate, small-scale 3D scene capture using a low-cost depth sensor. Nicole Carey, Radhika Nagpal, and Justin Werfel. IEEE Winter Conference on Applications of Computer Vision (WACV), 2017.
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.
I’ve been 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).
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.
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.
Nanoscale robots exhibiting quorum sensing. Yaniv Amir, Almogit Abu-Horowitz, Justin Werfel, and Ido Bachelet. Artificial Life 25(3): 227-231 (2019).
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 12: 20150580 (2015).
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?
Theory and associated phenomenology for intrinsic mortality arising from natural selection. Justin Werfel, Donald E. Ingber, and Yaneer Bar-Yam. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0173677 (2017).
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.
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?
Biologically realistic primitives for engineered morphogenesis. Justin Werfel. International Conference on Swarm Intelligence (ANTS), 2010.
Relatively simple models can be startlingly effective at predicting locations where violence between ethnic groups is likely to occurand likewise suggesting interventions that may be successful at promoting peace.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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.
Other fun stuff I’ve gotten to spend significant time on:
performing arts: juggling, storytelling (The Moth [multiple StorySLAM Winner], MassMouth [PBS feature, various competition awards], Story Collider, etc.), a cappella, light opera, musical theater, pantomime, science humor (BAHFest) and outreach (TEDxNov 2017, Dec 2018);
visual arts: glassblowing, blacksmithing;
solo sports: skiing, diving, long-distance and mountain unicycling.