Remote-Controlled Rats for Landmine Detection

The following article is taken from The Guardian, 2nd May 2002:

Scientists have turned living rats into remote-controlled, pleasure-driven robots which can be guided up ladders, through ruins and into minefields at the click of a laptop key.The project, which is funded by the US military’s research arm, Darpa, was partly inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, and partly by the earthquake in India last January.

Animals have often been used by humans in combat and in search and rescue, but not under direct computer-to-brain electronic control. The advent of surgically altered roborats marks the crossing of a new boundary in the mechanisation, and potential militarisation, of nature.

Scientists at the State University of New York (Suny) created the roborats by planting electrodes into their brains, a paper in today’s edition of the journal Nature reports.Two electrodes lead to the parts of the rats’ brains which normally detect an obstacle against their whiskers. A third plunges into an area of the brain identified as far back as the 1950s as providing the rat with a feeling of pleasure when stimulated.

In 10 sessions the rats learned that if they ran forward and turned left or right on cue, they would be “rewarded” with a buzz of electrically delivered pleasure.

Once trained they would move instantaneously and accurately as directed, for up to an hour at a time. The rats could be steered up ladders, along narrow ledges and down ramps, up trees, and into collapsed piles of concrete rubble.

The Suny team suggests roborats fitted with cameras or other sensors could be used as search and rescue aids in natural disasters such as earthquakes, or in mine clearance.

Sanjiv Talwar, lead author of the Nature paper, said not only did the rats wearing electrodes feel no pain, but they were having a good time.

“If the rat moves left or right as commanded, it feels this burst of happiness,” he said. “It follows this sort of cue very accurately. They work only for rewards. They love doing it.”

The work on guided rats was an offshoot of earlier research which showed that animals wired up to a processor could command a robotic arm by thought alone, a development which could potentially empower paralysed humans.

Asked to speculate on potential military uses for robotic animals, Dr Talwar agreed they could, in theory, be put to some unpleasant uses, such as assassination.

“Is it possible, objectively? I would imagine, if anybody wanted to do something as absurd as that. But yes, surveillance is pretty straightforward, although for these sort of operations you could use robots. You could apply this to birds … if you could fit birds with sensors and cameras and the like.”

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at London’s Institute of Education and a leading bioethics thinker, said: “It could be argued that we have, for 10,000 years or more, pushed farm animals around and directed their behaviour, but this clearly involves a degree of control and degree of invasiveness that in most people’s eyes is a step change.”

Prof Reiss said he was uneasy about humankind “subverting the autonomy” of animals. “There is a part of me that is not entirely happy with the idea of our subverting a sentient animal’s own aspirations and wish to lead a life of its own.”

Dr Talwar said that perhaps there needed to be a wider ethical debate.

But he argued that the roborat programme was not so far from training dogs. “The only thing different, and perhaps creepy, is that instead of whistling or giving food, you’re directly tapping into the brain,” he said.

Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.



The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.


“Belief” In Evolution

Apart from the political implications of “Intelligent” Design, and the movement’s obviously subversive intentions for school science curricula, consider what is wrong with the following video:

The fallacy is that evolution is a belief. It is not a belief. Belief is what you do when you are seeking to align your views with the most compelling explanation for a set of facts. Now, scientifically, evolution is a theory that seeks to do this, but at the same time, it is an observation, not an inference to an explanation. The inference happens later during the formulation of testable hypotheses on the back of the observation that evolution happens. Evolution is a fact. Not divinely revealed but observed by mankind. In The Devil’s Chaplain Richard Dawkins has written about his very clearly.

Even if they are nominally hypotheses on probation, these statements are true in exactly the same sense as the ordinary truths of everyday life; true in the same sense as it is true that you have a head, and that my desk is wooden. If scientific truth is open to philosophic doubt, it is no more so than common sense truth. Let’s at least be even-handed in our philosophical heckling.

On another level, evolution (and in the video the questioner implies biological evolution) is a process. For example, John McCain’s bald patch has evolved. The English language has evolved. It is a descriptor term for a series of events leading up the present state of affairs. In the scientific context specifically this can be traced back for living organisms and their speciation using a range of techniques from carbon dating, paleontology and genetics. That’s just observation. Trumping that with the dim declaration (one with no explanatory power whatsoever, incidentally) that “God” made things a particular way is a belief. And it’s one that demands a lot of work to maintain against the tide of evidence pointing to the better conclusion.

What to show someone who believes in “Intelligent” Design.

So, the redundancy of the appendix, the fact that men get swollen prostates in old age, the existence of bacteria, viruses (including the worst and deadly kinds), earthquakes, volcanoes and the biological pathology of cancer don’t persuade the “Intelligent” Design crowd that the world was not created by anyone who knew what the hell they were doing. And even less so by anyone with humankind’s best interest at heart. So what do you tell these people?

Well, there are two alternatives. One is that the person you’re dealing with, this ID-er, is interested in evidence but temporarily misguided – perhaps the unwitting dupe of creationist propaganda. For such a one there is hope since appeals to his intelligence are not altogether ruled out. People of religious faith, including ID, who are recalcitrant to such inconveniences as reality and fact, are, I fear, most likely to be stuck permanently in the no-hope zone. The following video is unlikely to move them. In either case, I challenge any “Intelligent” Design advocate to refute this:

The evidence presented above was published in Nature in 2004. The man speaking is Professor Kenneth Miller – a determined opponent of “Intelligent” Design idiocy and the author of the highly recommended book Finding Darwin’s God. The trial he was talking about was Kitzmiller vs The Dover Area School District (2005). The lecture in its entirety is available here.