ERC to Mauro Birattari

Swarm robotics consists in developing intelligent robots and making them collaborate to carry out complex tasks. The development of such a technology remains a challenge and requires intense laboratory work.

Mauro Birattari, researcher in the IRIDIA laboratory (Brussels School of Engineering), has recently been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council to develop an automatic design of intelligent robots.

In the course of the DEMIURGE project, the researcher and his team will try to develop a new tool that is capable of determining all the computer parameters required to create intelligent robots. They will start by defining a language shared with the machine, that will enable it to comprehend the problem posed. The programme will then identify the most optimal way to solve the problem and will choose all the necessary parameters, out of a set of pre-programmed software and hardware modules, to enable the 'swarm robots' to carry out the requested task.

The ERC Grant will support Mauro Birattari's research for 5 years. This is the second ERC grant awarded to this laboratory, after that awarded to Marco Dorigo.

For further information:

Obeying orders

"I was only obeying orders!" This argument has often been used as a justification for committing acts considered reprehensible... With the support of the European Research Council (ERC), researchers from the ULB Neuroscience Institute, UNI - Centre for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences, Faculty of Psychology and Education - and from University College London have investigated the mechanisms at work in a context of coercion and how people feel when they receive orders. Their study has recently been published in the journal Current Biology.

"Our results suggest people who obey orders could actually feel less responsible for the outcomes of their action: they may not just be claiming that they feel less responsible. People appear to experience a sort of distance from the outcome of their actions when they are obeying instructions", observes Patrick Haggard, University College London.

This study is relevant to both psychology and politics: in a society based on people's sense of responsibility, it is necessary to understand the factors that influence people's sense of responsibility, so they can be managed.

"Society sometimes requires people to obey an order to do something unpleasant", said Emilie Caspar from the ULB Neuroscience Institute, first author of the study. "Our findings may have several practical implications. First, maybe people can be trained to feel more responsible: that might allow them to resist orders that are inappropriate. Second, our results could be particularly important for people who give orders. If people who follow orders feel a reduced responsibility for their actions, then perhaps people who give orders should feel increased responsibility... For example, in some forms of government, a minister is held responsible for the actions of the civil servants working in their department. Society needs to carefully manage this kind of distribution of responsibility."

The RNA alphabet

Led by François Fuks from the ULB's Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and the ULB-Cancer Research Centre (U-CRC), researchers have, for the first time, shed light on the role played by one of the RNA 'letters': hmC or hydroxymethylation.

RNA is not just an intermediary molecule between DNA and proteins, it seems to have its own alphabet, which is just as important as the DNA alphabet. By conducting research on fruit flies, the researchers discovered that hmC promotes the translation of RNA into proteins. They also showed the essential role played by hmC in development: when hmC production was impeded, the flies (drosophila) died. Last but not least, they have fully mapped the epigenetics of hmC.

Published in the prestigious journal Science on 15 January, this study - in which the Molecular Biology of the Gene Laboratory in the Institute of Molecular Biology and Medicine (IBMM) participated- is part of a rapidly growing research field: the epigenetic changes in RNA could explain several major mysteries in the study of life and also improve our understanding of diseases such as cancer.