Sharks with freaking laser beams on their heads

Technology is advancing at an unbelievable rate. While we wait for teleporters and more importantly, dehydrated instant pizza, current technology is still evolving fast enough to amaze us. When most people thinks about robotics and mechatronics, they imagine complex, grand machines designed to make everyday life easier. But ultimately, the most complex machine known to mankind is still the human brain.

For years scientists have learned from animals to better their own science, from the engineers who studied spider silk to create stronger structure designs, to the Stanford team of biomechanists who developed wall-climbing, adhesive gloves by analysing geckos. Scientists have now moved to the next step, from trying to replicate the brain and other physical features, to integrating robotics into normal animals.

Animal cyborgs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

All Hail!
All Hail! via Flickr user Kenneth Hagemeyer

All hail our new overlords.

But seriously, the potential is amazing.

Imagine an earthquake disaster, as seen in Nepal, 2015. Instead of humans risking their lives digging through unstable rubble to find survivors, flies fitted with heat sensors do it for them. With more airline disasters, cybernetic animals could lead the charge in searching for wreckages. From eagles in the sky or dolphins in the oceans, survivors could be found at a faster rate. Where severe weather conditions would normally stop a search, these animals could continue. Able to search through the smallest gaps, highest peaks and harshest conditions, the potential of cyborg animals in search and rescue is amazing.
But it goes further. The most dangerous, unexplored places of the world are now ours to see! Indiana Jones in rat form, exploring the depths of the pyramids where humans simply can’t go. Our deepest oceans like the Mariana Trench, with water pressures too great for submarines to endure, but…fish evolved to withstand those pressures?

Both these things are already a reality!
Researcher from North Carolina State University have already developed what they call “biobots”; cockroaches with implants that respond to sound, designed for finding survivors of emergency situations. Rats linked to computers have been made more intelligent, able to solve mazes (pyramids???) faster than their non-cyborg friends.

Then we have personal defence. I know I’d love a pet labrador/rocket launcher that would protect me from home invasion. Or maybe i want my cat to have human-level intelligence, to communicate with me and tell me if they can really tell the difference between the non-branded canned food and the deluxe kind better than my own peasant lunch…

"I think you need to re-evaluate your life"
“I can’t believe you thought I wouldn’t notice.” via Flickr user Lynora Valdez

Of course with great power comes great responsibility. The ethics of using animals in this way is very dense and deserves a blog in its own right. Then there’s the usual of technology being misused. That cockroach is now fitted with a camera, always watching, taking away your right to privacy. A spider under the control of bad guys just became the world’s deadliest assassin. Ultimately, all technology has the potential to be misused. The use of enhanced animals in warfare has already begun, but that doesn’t mean we stop moving forward. The future is exciting! We should embrace it.


10 Responses to “Sharks with freaking laser beams on their heads”

  1. Felicity says:

    I looked into the linked article about the cyborg rats. It’s pretty cool. They basically gave the cyborg rats a GSP (not actually a GSP, just a computer program that solved the maze) that would plot their pathway and tell them where to go through brain stimulation.
    Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  2. kinseym says:

    Hi Elina, this was a fascinating read! I wasn’t aware of these kinds of developments were taking place in the science word and I agree with the concerns raised for the ethics of this. Still, the idea of animals being able to explore places like the deep sea or dangerous areas on earth is interesting, but how do you think they would be able to report about their findings? I’m assuming technology will have to improve alongside these “cyborgs” so that they can also carry equipment such as video cameras. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Elena says:

    Hahaha dont they all?

    Wow thats so sad! I didnt know that had even happened 😮 Thanks for the history lesson!

  4. trbrown says:

    Hi Elena,

    Fascinating read! There is definitely a lot of potential in this area, although I do feel it is quite different from biomimicry. Rather than learning and taking inspiration from nature (as in the spider silk and geckos examples), this seems more like hijacking nature. Even still, the potential benefits are great. Would love to read the follow up on the ethics side of things!

  5. kkhine says:

    Hi Elena, it is interesting to consider ethic for animal. Who will take the responsibility for this issue?

  6. jrobertson says:

    Hi Elena,

    I really enjoyed your blog. My cat controls the house without even being a cyborg. I can’t imagine what he would be capable of with more power…

    I listened to a this American Life podcast which talked about K-9 Corps. It was a world war II program in the US, they wanted dogs for soldiers and it made me think harder about animal ethics.

    The US wanted 125,000 dogs as soldiers, it was short notice so they asked for people to donate their pets. In the program, pets were trained as soldiers and de-progammed after the war. Dogs were used for scouting, sniffing land mines, running messages (that’s nice, they’re so clever) and attacking enemies (less nice) and also as suicide bombers (ok, that’s bad).

    What makes the difference is that these really were pets, not dogs born to be trained as soldiers so there’s a far stronger emotional pull.

    It brings animal ethics closer to home. I agree with Alina, get machines to do the stuff.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. Leslie says:

    Hi Elena, I can’t wait to fit my pet fish with security cameras haha. This topic is super interesting to me since I am studying bees, and in my lab we’re looking at how powerful the bee brain is even though it is so small. There’s been talk of incorporating this knowledge into robotics to help build smaller “brains”.

  8. Elena says:

    Hi Alina,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! I did my undergraduate degree in animal health so i know how complex animal ethics can be (potentially a follow up blog if i feel up for it?). I guess accurately replicating an animal system is really difficult, and until we get to that stage manipulating animals might be the way we end up going. From what i was reading, most of the modifying has been done in insects, most likely because of the aforementioned ethical considerations and simplicity of the animal. It’s a very deep rabbit hole…

  9. Alina says:

    Hi Elena, I really enjoyed reading your post. I haven’t heard of animal cyborgs before. I’m glad you mentioned there’s a whole other aspect of animal welfare to look into as that was my thoughts exactly. I feel like machines would be able to do all the things you mentioned and more-without the need to use animals. Very interesting read nonetheless- thanks for sharing.