Synsect Swarm
Image from Arik

Synsects are small bots, or occasionally cyborg/neogen or synano constructs, on the scale of arthropods. They may be as small as mites or as large as beetles, and often resemble them in appearance. Synsects exhibit artificial instinct as opposed to artificial intelligence which is to say that they are sentient but at a relatively low grade. They are capable, like insects and similar arthropods, of very complex emergent behaviour when they act in groups. They are a ubiquitous in most modern mechosystems. The term "synsect" was first coined by the early Information Age fabulist Stanislaw Lem, in Old Earth Polish, and translated into Old Earth Information Age English. Particular varieties of synsect may be called mitebots, gnatbots, grub-bots, spiderbots, mothbots, beetlebots, shrimpbots, centipedebots and so on according to the natural form the most closely resemble, but synsect is the general term.

Synsects may be created from nearly any material: plastics, diamondoid, corundumoid, biological materials such as chitin or protein, ceramics, and various metallic alloys. Most commonly they crawl in typical arthropod fashion, but in an atmosphere many forms fly using wings in the manner of insects. A minority use small turbine jets, or run on wheels. They usually use advanced batteries or capacitors or nanoflywheels as an onboard power source, and recharge at a supply depot or central "nest". A few rely on beamed power, and some use solar or other sources of power gathered on wings or wing-like structures and a few, especially those with biological components and operating in oxygen-bearing atmospheres, use chemical fuels. The central nest or recharging station may use local grid power, or generate its own by various means. Synsects may communicate via e-m signals, by sound (if they are operating in air or a liquid), by chemicals comparable to pheromones, or at close range by touch and mime. Some simple onboard nano or bionano for basic maintenance and repair is standard.

Many synsects use nanotech for self-replication, either individually or (more commonly) by cooperating to construct a central factory. This has led to the usual ecological problems that go with neumann capable entities, especially if the synsects in question have a short replication cycle. In this respect they are like the insect species on which they were originally modelled. This is especially true in some of the older mechosystems. In a few cases feral synsects now exist as elements in more complex mechanical or biological systems. For instance they are ubiquitous on most of the highly evolved botworlds.

Synsect technology is ancient, and dates back as far as the 1st century AT. The first practical synsects appeared late in the Information Age, but they did not become widespread until computronium comparable in efficiency to biological brains and nerves became possible. Early applications were primarily military. At first, they were used to gather information, or as instruments of sabotage and assassination. Later, there were more direct applications, involving chewing and tunnelling, drilling, stings, targeted placement of explosives (including nuclear weapons), delivery of nano or biotech agents, or simply roughening or "gumming up" critical moving parts such as tracks or jet engines. Once their potential was fully developed, multiform swarms of synsects programmed to attack vulnerable portions of men and machinery were another major step towards the removal of baseline human soldiers from the battlefield. They also led to a significant reduction in the role of extremely large and heavily powered equipment in warfare, since they proved capable of destroying or inactivating machines many times as expensive as a synsect swarm. Given their ability to destroy material and infrastructure, and to conduct environmental modifications and ecotage when working in concert, they also contributed to the final breakdown of "fronts" in land-based warfare. Much later, with the development of efficient dry nano, synsects could infiltrate an area or seed it with khaki goo or with constructors which in turn churned out more military-grade synsect swarms. Though today they are but one of several factors, synsects and counter-synsects are a standard part of any military planning once the action leaves interstellar and interplanetary space and touches on any surface, whether that surface is a natural object such as a planet or planetoid, or whether it is a hab.

Once they became commonplace, the peaceful applications of synsect technology were more widespread and significant than military uses. Synsects are commonly used today for engineering or maintenance projects that require small and numerous agents at the lower end of the macroscopic scale. As such they play an everyday role in construction, agriculture, mining, terraforming, and climate modification, especially where the grosser activities of larger bots or bionts would be inappropriate. Their small-scale activities are a great asset in close quarters or when environmental integrity is a concern. To take but one from many thousands of examples, they may mine tiny and otherwise uneconomic seams of minerals, pulverize them, and deliver the product to macro or nanotech factories for further processing, all without the disturbance of the many tons of overburden that would be required by more primitive technologies. In homes, habs, and arcologies across known space, teams of synsects crawl or swim the pipes, ducts and other conduits, gathering information and making minor repairs and alterations. Synsects are an essential element in most construction projects as well. Synsects also help repair and maintain solar arrays on the ground or in orbit, and are a key element in the maintenance of other orbital structures of all kinds, from simple shields and mirrors to elements of Dyson swarms. Many vecs, and some bionts, carry invisible symbiotic mite-sized synsects for cleaning, maintenance, and grooming.

In day to day life, the most commonly visible use of synsects is as a standard element in the security and maintenance systems of most homes, arcologies, and orbital habitats. Most homes have one or several synsect nests, as do many gardens (biological and otherwise). In these applications aesthetic considerations are also important. For instance, human nearbaselines and many terragen mammal provolves may respond poorly to what their instincts tell them are "vermin" unless the synsects are crafted to be unobtrusive. Such synsects operate at night or behind the scenes or use the using natural camouflage or chameleon coatings which are part of their ancient military heritage to hide in the open. On the other hand, some maintenance synsects are designed to be visually appealing, with attractive colours, shapes, and movements, and a few are purely decorative. At various periods of history it has been fashionable to program synsect "firefly" swarms to provide public lighting and mobile personal illumination. Some of the older communities preserve this quaint custom.

Synsect swarms have been upgraded or provolved into sapient/sophont beings on more than once occasion; there are some clades comparable to the Anttechians, with intelligence emergent on the behaviour of the individual units. In others the intelligence is located in the central processor as part of the "nest" that is integral to some synsect designs; such beings use their synsect swarm in the way less diffuse sapients might use arms and legs. As usual, some of the sapient synsect clades have in their turn produced transapient beings.

The synsect technology of the Muuh is highly developed. However, transfers to Terragen models have been limited, since the Muuh are content with a much slower rate of operation and because they often employ materials which are liquids or gases at the temperatures preferred by most Terragens.

Evolved synsects play a prominent role in the mechosystem of the botworld Stanislaw, and these botforms show a number of novel designs and strategies. Some of these plans have been integrated into standard synsect models, occasionally with startling results.

Image from Steve Bowers

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Development Notes
Text by Stephen Inniss
Initially published on 26 August 2004.

Stanislaw Lem elaborated on the concept of synsects in his essay The Upside Down Evolution. As the original is in Polish the term itself may have been invented by Catherine Leach, the translator of the English edition.