Are “Animal Robots” Robots At All?

IEEE Spectrum had an article from a Chinese lab on “animal robots”. When I was back in grad school, we worked on a proposal for a similar project. We were going to connect moth antennae to a robot and use them as sensors to drive the robot around. Various people have worked on similar ideas over the years, and they’re a little disturbing but generally very informative.

This paper had a diametrically opposed approach. Instead of replacing the animal’s actuators with a robotic interface, they mounted a controller on the back of a rat and connected it to the rat’s motor neurons. Instead of creating a robot with biological sensors, they created a remote control animal.

I am profoundly uncomfortable with this, especially as the research community moves away from insects and towards mammals. While I have no problem with doing horrible things to mosquitoes (largely in retaliation for the severe discomfort they have caused me over the years), rats are intelligent and interesting creatures. The thought of an intelligent animal being forced into actions via the equivalent of a muscular tic is repugnant.

However, that is not the larger question we need to address. This is:

Is a biological animal with a controller attached to its motor neurons a robot?

Setting aside my discomfort (to the best of my ability), I think that these should not count as robots. In essence, a robot is a machine that does a task for a human. We do not consider police horses or working dogs to be robots, because they are not machines. Just because we have traded reins for a computer and a bridle for wires into the brain and as a result have reduced their ability to act independently does not mean that the animal has suddenly become a robot.

We have a word for organisms that have been merged with mechanisms until it is difficult to tell where the animal ends and the machines begin: we call them “cyborgs”.

Cyborg research is most closely related to robotics, so I expect that researchers developing cyborgs are going to be part of the robotics community for some time to come. But we shouldn’t expect them to stay part of our community forever, and we certainly shouldn’t accept this hijacking of our terminology. We have just managed to pry the word “robot” out of the hands of the computer science community (yes, robots have to have bodies); I’d hate to have to have that argument all over again…

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