Orit Peleg. Image: Peleg Lab, CU Boulder

The Complex Systems Society has awarded a 2021 Junior Scientific Award to SFI External Professor Orit Peleg, an assistant professor within the University of Colorado’s Department of Computer Science and BioFrontiers Institute.

“I’m honored to have my work recognized by the Complex Systems Society — it means so much to me that the work I’m so passionate about resonates with others,” says Peleg. “I’m earnestly grateful for the selection committee, as well as the many nurturing mentors I’ve had over the years. Their support is instrumental for junior researchers like me.”

Peleg’s research aims to understand how biological communication signals are generated and interpreted. While the channel — be it chemical, sound, or light — may vary, the living creatures of our world all encode high-dimensional biological features into low-dimensional communication patterns. 

“Though animal communication is often considered the domain of ecologists and zoologists, physicists and mathematicians have much to contribute when it comes to understanding the energetic cost of communicating, the amount of information being transmitted from one organism to another, and how difficult or easy it is for the recipient to detect the sender’s signal,” she says.

Peleg uses insect swarms as a model system to identify how organisms harness the dynamics of communication signals, perform spatiotemporal integration of these signals, and propagate those signals to neighboring organisms. Examples include fireflies who communicate over long distances using light signals, or bees who serve as signal amplifiers to propagate pheromone-based information about the queen’s location.

“One of the most exciting frontiers in robotics is bioinspired swarms — legions of tiny robots that will move together to explore a field of landmines, the deep-sea floor, or the surface of another planet,” Peleg says. “To operate as a swarm, the robots must be able to communicate with and react to each other. The swarm should also be robust, meaning it can continue to function even if some members break down.”

By studying firefly and honeybee communication — natural systems honed by evolution — Peleg and her colleagues can mathematically formulate rules for how the individual behaviors map to the swarm. These rules can then be applied to robotics, and shed light on other complex systems."

Peleg and colleagues are currently developing such mathematical models to account for behavioral data. “We expect these insights from evolved, energy-efficient swarms of fireflies to be essential for designing distributed algorithms for robot swarms that require some form of synchronization to carry out their tasks,” she says.