Live rats driven by remote control
James Meek, science correspondent
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.
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