Moths Controlled by Machine Intelligence

A Moth on a black backgroundWhat’s cheaper than a miniaturized, flying insect-like robot controlled by artificial intelligence? A miniaturized computer chip embedded as a control device in a natural organism. One of DARPAs projects involves injecting a chip into a Moth during the larva stage, the larva effectively adapting to the chip as part of its body. Once the moth hatches, machine learning is used to control it — to translate the signals and responses from the moth’s organic body — and effectively making it a mechorganic hybrid spy device; a cyborg moth.

This story seemed a nice insect-related follow up to my entry on the brain controlling fungus. The project codename is Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS), and the control devices are referred to by its developers as “reliable tissue-machine interfaces”. The idea is that the cyborg moths could serve as spy drones in hazardous situations — such as wars. The moths would be controlled remotely by a human (or, potentially, an AI system), relaying video and sound back to the control station. DARPA has been working on steel/biological machine integration for some time now, and it appears they’re making headway in their moth project.

Large moth

While the technology is still an ongoing project and there’s no mention of estimated release dates — Rodney Brooks, director of MITs Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), is quoted in a recent article from Times Online:

“This is going to happen,” said Mr Brooks. “It’s not science like developing the nuclear bomb, which costs billions of dollars. It can be done relatively cheaply.”

A rational statement, considering that we’ve (we the human race) have already managed to remote control pigeons to fly up-down-left or right, as well as control labrats. This kind of research is exceptionally interesting. The remote control in a rat project — created by scientists at the State University of New York — works in such a way that it only gives the rat general directions, which the rat then carries out using its own native intelligence. For example, a “go up” command would cause the rat to look for something to climb without the controller having to figure out the best way to move upwards. Here’s a video of one of the remote controlled rats, this one is particularly cute (and fat) — and has a camera attached to its protruding backpack. Needless to say, the rat is controlled wirelessly.

But while rats and pigeons can prove very useful allies on the ground and in the sky — there are significant advantages to implementing this technology in insects, as Brooks details in the NYT article:

“Moths are creatures that need little food and can fly all kinds of places,” he continued. “A bunch of experiments have been done over the past couple of years where simple animals, such as rats and cockroaches, have been operated on and driven by joysticks, but this is the first time where the chip has been injected in the pupa stage and ‘grown’ inside it.

In both cases of the rat and pigeon, the remote control devices are protruding and large — I’d be interested in seeing snapshots of the current moth devices. But what else could this technology do and where are we headed? The article quikly unravels as a general discussion of the merge of machines and biological creatures,

Debates such as those over stem cell research would “pale in comparison” to the increasingly blurred distinction between creatures – including humans – and machines, Mr Brooks, told an audience at the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science.

“The future is now” seems an appropriate catch phrase at this point. It’ll be exciting to follow coming news of mechorganic creatures, and which parts of us humans are next in the mechanical upgrading queue.

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4 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Wow. Talk about “bugging” an office…

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.


  2. This gives an impressive list of possibilities.
    Imagine a swarm of AI controlled bugs that try to find survivors in places that are too small for humans.
    Imagine cheap labor that can work on a small level.
    Imagine bugs that are used in medical care, but with guided accuracy.
    Imagine a large swarm of army AI controlled bugs or killer bees.
    Imagine the ultimate killer assassin. An AI controlled poisonous house fly which could get anywhere unnoticed.

    Bugs have the ability to self heal and are way more advanced then our modern robots. Therefore this could give us something that resembles the next generation of robotics before the technology is available.

    I think that this could lead to some quite interesting events in the time to come. What do you think?

  3. It is a fascinating concept. I too have noticed these things on my blog. I wonder how wide ranging the uses are: Perhaps they could be used to map weather patterns if a swarm of moths were able to transmit conditions some how. Would it be possible to do a similar technique with larger living things like a bird or frog and be undetectable visually?

    It would make surveillance very scary indeed, you would never know if you were being watched.

  4. Hrafn


    Not sure whether weather mapping would be a potential. But perhaps it could make monitoring/prevention of natural disasters a lot easier.

    I think that this could lead to some quite interesting events in the time to come. What do you think?

    Well, basically, I think you’re right :)

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