BY WIRED SCIENCE
03.21.13 – 6:30 AM
Unless an asteroid or deadly pandemic wipes us out first, the force we are most afraid will rob us of our place as rulers of Earth is robots. The warnings range from sarcastic to nervous to dead serious, but they all describe the same scenario: Robots become sentient, join forces and turn on us en masse.
But with all the paranoia about machines, we’ve ignored another possibility: Animals learn to control robots and decide it’s their turn to rule the planet. This would be even more dangerous than dolphins evolving opposable thumbs. And the first signs of this coming threat are already starting to appear in laboratories around the world where robots are being driven by birds, trained by moths and controlled by the minds of monkeys.
One of the most recent examples of animal-driven robots is this two-wheeled car steered by a male silkmoth. Researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan placed the moth on a giant white ball that allowed it to control the vehicle much like a hand on a computer mouse. The insect was in hot pursuit of a female silkmoth’s pheromone, which had been laid down by the scientists and, unfortunately for the male, not a lady moth looking for love.
The researchers hoped to characterize the moth’s tracking behavior and perhaps create autonomous robots that can follow chemical smells. The male moth just hoped to impress a classy gal with his sweet cruiser.
Video: Institute of Physics/Youtube
Parrot Drives Buggy
Pepper the Parrot has the good fortune of having an engineer for an owner. Most birds can expect their squawks of boredom to be met by annoyed owners, squirts from a water gun, or exile into a far corner of the house.
But not Pepper. This spoiled parrot received his own set of wheels, complete with infrared sensors to help him avoid hitting walls. Now when Pepper feels lonely, instead of just crying about it he hops on his buggy and drives through the house to where the people are.
Video: Andrew Gray/YouTube
Monkey Controls Robotic Arm
In a lab at Duke University, a neuroscientist is training monkeys to control robots with their minds. The monkeys can control computer cursors, virtual arms, real robotic arms, entire robotic exoskeletons and even whole robots on the other side of the globe. All just by thinking about it.
Much of the research is geared toward helping paralyzed people regain mobility and control. But it’s not hard to imagine how it could lead to a monkey in South America commanding a robot army in California to steal bananas from all the farmers’ markets.
Video: Velliste et.al./YouTube
Though probably not the best video to watch over lunch, the cockroach controlling a robot seen here is pretty fascinating. Created by artist Garnet Hertz of UC Irvine, the machine translates the movements of a 5-cm Giant Madagascar Hissing cockroach as it scurries over a large ball. You can almost imagine the little cockroach going “Weeee,” as it runs around strapped into its harness, doing its best to avoid crashing into walls.
According the Hertz, the project is “striving to create a pseudo-intelligent system with the cockroach as the CPU.” The effect is a rather unpredictable creation, with the insect sometimes sitting still for five minutes or suddenly running in circles.
Video: Garnet Hertz/Vimeo
At the University of Tokyo in Japan, scientists are creating strange hybrids between beast and machine. Seen here is one such animal, known as RatCar.
Intended to be a first step toward helping people with disabilities, RatCar has a brain-machine interface that lets the small rodent move a robot forward with the parts of its brain that ordinarily control its limbs. The result is a somewhat crazy looking cyborg. One day, the research could help paralyzed patients control wheelchairs directly with their brains.
Video: University of Tokyo’s Medical Engineering and Life Science Laboratory via IEEE
Fruit Fly Steers Robot
Swiss scientists have created what they call the Cyborg Fly. In this scheme, a fly is glued to a tether and placed in front of a mini movie screen. The screen plays a movie, and the fly thinks it is actually flying around obstacles. Meanwhile, a vision system tracks the wing motion of the fly and translates it into electronic commands which are sent to a little robot in an actual obstacle course.
This may all seem innocent enough, but the key here is that the fly believes it is flying around, interacting with the environment. Could they fool other animals too? How about humans? What if we are all actually just tethered into a virtual reality, while our robot representatives are the ones actually experiencing the real world?
Video: Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich/IEEE Spectrum/YouTube
Robot Driving Ducks
Oh how the tables have turned: All this time animals have been driving robots, but here is a case of a robot driving the animals instead. Specifically, a small Roomba-esque machine is driving a flock of ducks. Known as the Robot Sheepdog, this project was part of the PhD thesis for engineer Richard Vaughan from the University of Oxford back in 1998.
You might be wondering why a robot sheepdog is maneuvering some ducks. It’s simply because the researchers felt that sheep might be too big a hurdle to properly simulate at the time. As biological sheepdogs are first trained with ducks, these fowl seemed the perfect first step. The robot was able to watch the ducks with a camera and, using a mathematical model of their behavior, herd them with relative ease.
Video: Richard Vaughn/Youtube