Our Research

Biological systems, from cells to social insects, get tremendous mileage from the cooperation of vast numbers of cheap, unreliable, and limited individuals. What would it take to create our own artificial collectives of the scale and complexity that nature achieves?

Our group is interested in self-organizing multi-agent systems, where large numbers of simple agents cooperate to produce complex and robust global behavior. We develop bio-inspired robots and algorithms for collective intelligence, drawing inspiration from social insects and multicellular organization. We also investigate models of self-organization in biology, specifically how cells and insects cooperate to achieve complex tasks. Our work combines computer science, robotics, and biology.

A common theme in all of our work is understanding the relationship between local and global behavior: how does robust collective behavior arise from many locally interacting agents, and how can we program the local interations of simple agents to achieve the global behaviors we want.

Prof. Radhika Nagpal

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering
Harvard University

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Research Areas

We work on three main areas:

  • Bio-inspired Multi-agent Models and Theory

    We explore artificial multi-agent models inspired by self-organising and self-repairing behavior in biology. We are especially interested in global-to-local compilation and theory, i.e. how user-specified global goals can be translated into local agent interactions and how one can reason about the correctness and complexity of agent rules. Our goal is to show how biological design principles can be formally captured, generalized to new tasks, and theoretically analyzed.

  • Bio-inspired Multi-agent Robotic Systems

    We study bio-inspired approaches for designing and programming robotic systems that rely on large numbers of relatively cheap and simple agents, e.g. reconfigurable modular robots, robot swarms (TERMES, Kilobots, Robobees) and sensor networks. We are especially interested in the design and analysis of algorithms for decentralized coordination, global-to-local programming, and the physical design of autonomous robot collectives.

  • Biological Multi-agent Systems

    We develop mathematical and computational models of individual behavior to investigate how system-level properties emerge in collective systems. We work closely with experimental biologists. Our previous work focused on epithelial tissues in fruit fly development, and the relationship between local cell programs and global tissue-level outcomes. Our current work focuses on how social insects, such as mound-building termites, coordinate to achieve complex tasks.

Our lab is part of the Computer Science Area, within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. We are part of the Artificial Intelligence research group (AIRG) and the SEAS Robotics Group. Our lab is a core member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, where we co-lead the Bio-inspired Robotics Platform. We are also affiliated with the Systems Biology PhD program at Harvard. We are located on the 2nd floor of the Maxwell-Dworkin Building, at 33 Oxford Street, Cambridge.

Lab Ski Trip, Feb 2016: the SSR group and our families!


Join us: We are recruiting! (Grad students)
Youtube Channel: See Videos of our work
Kilobotics: Buy, Make and Program Your Own


JOIN US! 2015
We are looking for smart, creative, and fun-loving graduate students to join our lab. Areas of special interest include building novel bio-inspired robots (ee/me background), as well as AI models of collectives (cs/am). To find out more about our lab, skim through our selected articles and Radhika's recent talks (ICRA Keynote, Wyss). More info on how to apply here.

TEDx! October 2015

Lab News, Spring-Fall 2015
Congrats to Mike Rubenstein who started his new lab as Assistant Professor at Northwestern! Congrats also to Ben Green who won an NSF Graduate Fellowship this year. Radhika gave a Keynote Talk at ICRA 2015 (video), in Seattle. We also hosted the Wyss Symposium on Bio-inspired Robotics (overview video), with many invited talks including a keynote by Helen Granier (co-founder of iRobot and CyPhyworks).

Nature's 10 and Science 10, Dec 2014
Radhika was named by Nature magazine as one of the Top Ten Scientists and Engineers in 2014 (Nature 10, Dec 18 issue). And our work on cooperative swarms (kilobot and termes) was chosen for Science magazine's top 10 breakthroughs of the year (Dec 19 issue). Congrats to our research team and alums!

Science, Aug and Feb 2014
Our kilobot (1024-robot swarm) is in Science magazine (Aug 2014), demonstrating large-scale collective self-assembly through local interactions and without human intervention. See a Movie of our work; also some news articles: Boston Globe, National Geographic, Science News, Wyss Institute
And our Termes collective construction robots are on the cover of Science (Feb 2014), along with a perspective by Prof. Korb. Lots of great news articles on our work (Boston Globe, NPR, Nature News). Check out the Movie of our work
Congrats to Mike Rubenstein, Alex Cornejo, Kirstin Petersen and Justin Werfel!