News Stories

Ratbots

Rats controlled by implants in their brains could one day be used to search for landmines or the buried victims of earthquakes. Researchers have created 5 of these ?ratbots? and succeeded in steering them through an obstacle course by remote control. Dr. Sanjiv Talwar, of the State University of New York, says the ratbots can reach places inaccessible to humans or machines.

Electrodes were implanted into areas of the rats' brains responsible for sensing a reward, as well as those that process signals from the whiskers. The commands and rewards were transmitted by radio from a laptop computer to a backpack receiver strapped to each rat. The scientists were able to make the rats run, turn, jump and climb where they wanted them to. They were able to send commands from distances of up to 1,640 feet.

The ratbots negotiated an obstacle course which involved climbing a vertical ladder, running along a narrow ledge, hopping down a flight of steps, squeezing through a hoop and descending a steep ramp. One of the scientists on Talwar?s team says, "Our rats were easily guided through pipes and across elevated runways and ledges, and could be instructed to climb or jump from any surface that offered sufficient purchase. We were also able to guide rats in systematically exploring large, collapsed piles of concrete rubble and to direct them through environments that they would normally avoid, such as brightly lit, open arenas."

A "turn left" signal was interpreted by the rats' brains as a "touch" on their left whiskers. If the rats correctly followed the cue and turned left, their reward-centers were stimulated, filling the rodents with a feeling of well-being. Talwar says, "This is an animal with 200 million years of evolution behind it. Rats have native intelligence which is a lot better than artificial intelligence. It is a hard problem simply trying to make a robot move properly over unpredictable terrain. It would be a simple matter to train rescue rats to recognize and home in on the smell of a human trapped under rubble.

There?s an ethical problem here: Do we have the right to turn other creatures into cyborg slaves? "Our animals were completely happy and treated well and in no sense was there any cruelty involved," Talwar says. "Nonetheless, the idea is sort of creepy. I do not know what the answer is to that."

There are far stranger things than Ratbots in our science reporter Linda Howe?s book ?Glimpses of Other Realities, Vol. II?,click here.

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