Imagine wiring up a living thing and being able to control its movements.
That's exactly what a bunch of engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have recently done, by attaching strings to a giant flower beetle and using a remote control to make it walk and even gallop.
Eight pairs of implanted electrodes were placed within eight muscles in the beetle's two front legs, and through electronic simulation, the scientists were able to control the insect's steps and even walking speed.
The study was published this week in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and the researchers claim that, to their knowledge, "this is the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with user-adjustable walking gaits."
But this isn't the first time these scientists have worked on cyborg-beetle technology. In March 2015, the same team along with researchers at the University of California Berkley, managed to control a beetle's flight.
Bugs could become spy bugs
In that experiment, a microchip was placed upon the insect like a tiny backpack, while electrodes were fitted onto the bug's legs; radio signals were used to communicate between all the components.
The subject of both research projects was a seven centimetre-long African beetle species Mecynorrhina torquata. These beetles, weighing about eight grams on average, are small enough to experiment on, but still large enough to withstand the weight of additional electrodes when taking flight or moving around.
The study also flags several potential uses for these "biobots", including using them in lieu of drones for warfare/spy craft, or in rescue surveillance, since these insects can navigate small spaces.
Professor Toby Walsh, artificial intelligence expert at the University of New South Wales, says as to whether the technology is used for good or evil is in our own hands.
“All technology can be used for good or bad,” he says. "But we get to make those choices. And we get to choose the good choice if we want.”
In spite of the cyborg beetle's very obvious application to spying and warfare, Dr Walsh says that first of all, the results help us better understand how nerves and muscles work, meaning this technology also could have the potential to help paralysed people walk again.
“All this research feeds into our knowledge of neurophysiology for the body,” he says.
Not to mention the technology could also help us build better robots - as in the non-cyborg variety, Dr Walsh adds.
Evil cyborg beetles?
Dr Walsh is an advocate for the banning of autonomous robotic weaponry, a title that seems someone thrust upon him, but a movement he is nonetheless passionate about.
He mentions that the temptation to use new technology for highly militarised purposes is real, but we have it in us to make the responsible, non-destructive choice.
Dr Walsh cites both the 1997 and 1998 UN Conventions as times when humanity "made the good choice". In 1997 they banned the use of anti-personnel mines, and in 1998 they decided high power blinding lasers shouldn't be used in battle.
“But we clearly use lasers everywhere, just not blinding lasers,” Dr Walsh says, highlight how making a socially-responsible choice will not compromise the robotic technology's impact on society.
As to how this technology might present itself in the future, Dr Walsh had this to say: “We have a responsibility as to how our science is used."