What a koji would think of a robofish?

Cyberfish in ponds, pollinating roboinsects or robotic singing birds – such machines are already being constructed. Today they are curiosities or inhabitants of robotic zoos, used to analyse organisms’ movement or behaviour, but soon we will see them in our environment. How will predators – birds and insectivorous mammals – react to roboinsects? And how real animals react to their robotic counterparts in the first place?

In the opinion of fans of „2001: A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick when it comes to robots in our immediate environment we are some 25 years late – or even more if you have been an avid viewer of The Jetsons in your childhood. Of course we have our smart houses – their smartness depending on our affluence – as well as coffee-making robots at every fuel station. There are medical robots performing surgeries and more or less truthful chatbots, but we had expected something more, hadn’t we?

Let us close our eyes for a moment and try to imagine the world inhabited not only by robotic welding arms, food processors, demining robots and of course androids performing on android exhibitions, but also robofish in ponds, artificial pollinating insects and singing cyberbirds. The tale about wretched fate of a real bird competing with an artificial mechanism – written by ingenious Hans Christian Andersen in the era not of robots but of wound-up mechanisms – may add a quantum of realism to our vision of the future. We can also enhance our robotic collection with earthworms and myriapods – mechanical and not necessary constructed with playing in mind.

Such effort is necessary if we want to save ourselves a shock – because such robots are already under construction. Presently they serve merely as models helping to test scientific theories on organismal movement or social behaviours or they spark our admiration in robotic zoos or curiosity rooms. However, they will soon become a staple element of our socio-natural environment.

Naturally we are trying to get used to their presence. Some serious research has even been performed on such futuristic question as children’s attitude to robots. In the kids’ opinion, you must not kick or even raise your voice to a robot because it has feelings, but it is acceptable to treat this way a floor-cleaning roomba, especially if you do not damage it. After all it does not hurt, does it? Such opinions bring to mind ways in which children relate to animals: what is acceptable towards a dog or a cat, or maybe a hamster, and what only towards fish or a wasp or a fly, not to mention an earthworm. Unfortunately the analysis of their opinions on robodogs or robocats is still a matter of future.

Robotic myriapod saves lives

By the way, a cyberearthworm is in fact an original take on a machine able to squeeze through every crack. It could turn out very useful for example when you need to reach someone buried under a fallen wall. Even though it does not look pretty, it pretty well imitates movement of a real annelid and therefore it serves its purpose. And soon it will do more. The reactions of real earthworms to it are unknown – but who cares about feelings of such brainless and eyeless creatures (though they are advanced enough to be trained). Supposedly they would approach a robotic annelid like any other obstacle in their environment, for example a stick put on their way by a playful child: first they freeze and then either change the direction or decide that it is harmless and press on.
In the above-mentioned case what fascinated design engineers was locomotion of the creature which thanks to its muscles and hydrostatic skeleton is capable of accessing places beyond the reach of humans. Several months ago other team of engineers and mathematical modelling experts informed about building of a cybermyriapod. These small arthropods of today (though palaeontological records contain specimens several meters long) can negotiate any terrain. They would not tumble down of any hill or turn over any unevenness. Contrary to ours, their movement is not subject to the tyranny of inertia, so when they stop moving their legs, they do not fall forward. At the moment the creators of the robomyriapod are working on theory of optimization of its locomotion and simultaneously establishing a company – they plan to turn their prototype into a weeding robot. As a garden owner myself and an opponent of herbicides I am all for that, though such “creature” might scare my neighbours if I put it in my vegetable patch. And again – it remains a mystery if real myriapods would perceive it as a peer or a competitor, or maybe a scarecrow of sorts. The problem is worth examining because arthropods are equipped with a sound nervous system and a powerful brain.

  The phylum comprises also insects whose decline – not to say hecatomb – we have witnessed for the last 25 years. For our human world the biggest problem is death of pollinators; no one will bemoan the demise of fleas, mosquitos or cockroaches. Unfortunately actions like “save a bee” not only do not alleviate the situation but aggravate it – we tend to forget that honeybee is just one of many pollinators on our planet and a strong and well organized competitor to match. Therefore it comes as no surprise that already two years ago “The Wall Street Journal”, a newspaper read by investors, reported: “Advances in artificial intelligence are helping some start-ups develop another way to pollinate plants, which could increase yield compared with insects and human workers”.

By “another way” they meant pollinating robots. These have to be very small and able to easily “tank” energy. Solar cells seem a bit too heavy, though they are the most accessible option at the moment. However, in this case we would have to analyse how introduction of such machines would influence the well-being of insects which keep doing their job at pollinating despite threats posed by crop spraying and climatic change. An interesting thing would also be to check the reaction of predators, i.e. insectivorous birds and mammals. How much time would they need to learn what prey not to chase?

The presence of cyber-carp gave them extra energy

Robots are invading waters as well. Among concepts of swimming machines there are forms similar to octopuses or calmaries (“Matrix” rulez!) which possibly would be able to cleanse water bodies – for instance of plastic. Others are to support research of interactions within fish shoals – a cyberfish equipped with a camera, a kind of observational drone is an interesting and workable idea. Chinese engineers and behaviourists from Peking University and China Agricultural University have recently published in „Bioinspiration & Biomimetics” a paper describing interactions of a robofish with its living counterparts. The aim was twofold: to optimise fish-inspired robots (how they should move, look, smell and sound to be accepted in the natural environment) and to get to know living fish behaviours (territorial, related with mating etc.).
Myriapods – both live and robotic – have many legs. Even if one of them loses traction it can still move on. Photo Georgia Tech

What does AI think? Maybe it has become conscious, it is definitely good at mimicking humans

It gathers information from its environment, connects the dots and draws conclusions. Its program works like the human brain. The Google programmer claims his chatbot can “feel”.

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It turned out carp (big and colourful freshwater fish from East Asia) followed a robot designed to precisely imitate their appearance, shape and movements. Living fish were much less active when alone; the couple demonstrated extra vigour only when joined by a robot. We better start imagining our breeding ponds “inhabited” by such machines because that is the future. The only thing lacking at the moment is silent and vibration-free propulsion technology, because thanks to a sensory organs in a so called lateral line living fish are very sensitive to vibrations. As of today vibrations caused by fin, and especially body movements of robots are still unnaturally strong and unconcentrated.

In 2019 the journal „Biological Cybernetics” published an article summing up advances of robotic fauna in animal kingdom of that time (before the pandemic and chat GPT – seems like another world!). Though in AI development three years are a whole epoch we can subscribe to the opinion of the authors’ – Donato Romano, Elisa Donati, Giovanni Benelli and Cesare Stefanini from Italian and Swiss bio-robotic and neuroinformatic institutes – that „Living organisms are far superior to state-of-the-art robots as they have evolved a wide number of capabilities that far encompass our most advanced technologies”. The evolution has been here for three and a half billion years, while robotics – even if we put its beginnings at XVI-century Prague’s legend of Golem and not at Karel Čapek’s play “R.U.R.” of 1921 where the term “robot” appeared for the first time – barely half a millennium.

The publication dedicated much space to bio-hybrids which help understand the workings of biological apparatus (e.g. muscular or neural) thanks to their interaction with integrated technologies. In fact such robotic lab rats are used nowadays ever more often. The reason is not only limiting the use of feeling, living animals in experiments; the researchers have also in mind the future we have already entered – the future of science, social relations and interactions with our living environment. Animal cyborgs, so called bio-hybrid organisms, are becoming ever more present in labs.

Meanwhile for their turn are already waiting robots developed to interact with animal societies, both in labs and in the wild. Only “by using artificial agents, it is possible to shed light on social behaviours characterizing mixed societies. The robots can be used to manipulate groups of living organisms to understand self-organization and the evolution of cooperative behaviour and communication” – states the abstract of the above-mentioned bio-cybernetic article of 2019.

We will not find it out until we test it – and the necessary tools are becoming accessible. We should prepare ourselves for mixed societies – not only of humans, but also of animals; dynamic systems where artificial agents are not used merely as mannikins to provoke animals’ reactions. These new robots are nothing like a wooden decoy duck luring its living peers under hunters’ fire. In mixed societies robots can spark behavioural reactions, adapting their own behaviours to those of other animals. And thanks to AI they can learn both new behaviours and new reactions to stimuli sent by their natural… well, I almost wrote “kin”.

Does it mean that in the foreseeable future we will see robotic toys in affordable price of 400 zl not only for pet dogs but also for wolves? (Of course, in the case of the latter such “toys” would enable non-stop scientific invigilation.) A luxury version of a robodog for humans costs 70 times more, but volenti non fit iniuria – especially that the price of a pedigree live dog is comparable. The demand is high, so the branch of designing and producing robotic quadrupeds ready for domestication is developing dynamically.

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Hanna Pasierska
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