Posted on 04/07/2013 by Akshat Rathi

I’m not a chemist, but at the Lindau meeting that doesn’t matter

I love robots (who doesn’t?) and really enjoy the work roboticists do. All through graduate school, I had a roboticist as a housemate. We talked about how difficult it is for robots to things that we humans take for granted. Show a robot a picture of the street and it won’t be able to differentiate a car from the road. Building a robot hand that can lift a glass of water and then keep it down took many years of hard work by a bunch of expert roboticists. And yet, these little machines have been instrumental in making our modern lives possible.

Sabine Hauert

When I first came across Sabine Hauert on RoboHub, I was enthralled by her articles. She has a knack ofcommunicating beautifully the cool things that robots do and the difficulty of getting them to do. All this has got nothing to do with chemistry, so I was very pleasantly surprised to know that Sabine was attending this year’s Lindau meeting because the theme this year is chemistry. I was very curious why a roboticist would like to know about molecular workings of the world.

Sitting by the lake Bodensee, I got a chance to ask her to explain this to me. Turns out the behaviour of robots could be used to make cancer drugs.

Here is Sabine on her experience at the meeting so far:

Although the theme of this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting is chemistry, the talks transcend boundaries. They have featured quantum computing, personalized medicine, cell biology and even Tibetan art. The Laureates, who I imagined as super-specialists, are rooting for us young researchers to expand our horizons, work across disciplines to tackle challenges in climate change or medicine, and persevere against all odds. I’m not a chemist, and it doesn’t seem to matter.

As a swarm engineer, I take inspiration from insect colonies and bird flocks to explore new ways in which large numbers of simple agents can self-organize. I use computer tools like crowdsourcing and machine learning to discover strategies that lead to formation of swarms and apply them to real-world problems. During my PhD, I engineered swarms of flying robots for disaster scenarios. At Sangeeta Bhatia‘s Lab at MIT, I hope to make nanoparticles swarm to improve the treatment of cancer.

Through listening and mingling at talks and dinners in Lindau, I’ve learned that many parallels exist across disciplines and this untapped territory is making me tingle. I discovered Gerhard Ertl‘s spirals that emerge from reaction-diffusion systems, Dan Shechtman‘s diffraction patterns of quasi-crystals and Jean-Marie Lehn‘s use of self-organization to make complex matter. Molecular machinery presented by John Walker and Ada Yonath, including the ATP synthase and the ribosome, would make any roboticists shy away from their bulky motors.

Could these discoveries lead to innovation in robotics or bio-engineering? Can my work help design these self-organized systems? At dinners we brainstormed about machine learning and artificial neural networks to explore self-organization in the brain.

Many seeds were planted this week, cross-disciplinary ideas that will require time and frontier funding to grow. Instead of focusing on a specific topic, maybe next year’s Lindau meeting could be about “science and passion”? I have a feeling that Richard Ernst would approve.

Sabine Hauert is a Human Frontier Science Program cross-disciplinary fellow at MIT in the laboratory of Sangeeta Bhatia. Before working in bio-engineering, she completed a M.Sc. in Computer Science and a Ph.D. at EPFL in Switzerland where she worked on controlling swarms of flying robotsPassionate about science communication, Sabine co-founded a non-profit association best known for its blog Robohub and podcast.

A video about Sabine’s work with swarms of flying robots:

Akshat Rathi

Akshat Rathi is a reporter for Quartz ( in London. He has previously worked at The Economist and The Conversation. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Guardian and The Hindu. He has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.