From Times Online
May 24, 2007
Can cyborg moths bring down terrorists?
A moth which has a computer chip implanted in it while in the cocoon will enable soldiers to spy on insurgents, the US military hopes
Scientists are growing flesh around computer parts to create cyborg moths, which can be controlled remotely
At some point in the not too distant future, a moth will take flight in the hills of northern Pakistan, and flap towards a suspected terrorist training camp.
But this will be no ordinary moth.
Inside it will be a computer chip that was implanted when the creature was still a pupa, in the cocoon, meaning that the moth's entire nervous system can be controlled remotely.
The moth will thus be capable of landing in the camp without arousing suspicion, all the while beaming video and other information back to its masters via what its developers refer to as a "reliable tissue-machine interface."
The creation of insects whose flesh grows around computer parts – known from science fiction as 'cyborgs' – has been described as one of the most ambitious robotics projects ever conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the research and development arm of the US Department of Defense.
Rod Brooks, director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is involved with the research, said that robotics was increasingly at the forefront of US military research, and that the remote-controlled moths, described by DARPA as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, were one of a number of technologies soon to be deployed in combat zones.
"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."
"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.
"Once the moth hatches, machine learning is used to control it."
Mr Brooks, who has worked on robotic technology for more than 30 years and whose company iRobot already supplies the US military with robots that defuse explosive devices laid by insurgents, said that the military would be increasingly reliant on 'semi-autonomous' devices, including ones which could fire.
"The DoD has said it wants one third of all missions to be unmanned by 2015, and there's no doubt their things will become weaponised, so the question comes: should they given targeting authority?
"The prevailing view in the army at the moment seems to be that they shouldn't, but perhaps it's time to consider updating treaties like the Geneva Convention to include clauses which regulate their use."
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.
"Biological engineering is coming. There are already more than 100,000 people with cochlear implants, which have a direct neural connection, and chips are being inserted in people's retinas to combat macular degeneration. By the 2012 Olympics, we're going to be dealing with systems which can aid the oxygen uptake of athletes.
"There's going to be more and more technology in our bodies, and to stomp on all this technology and try to prevent it happening is just? well, there's going to be a lot of moral debates," he said.
Another robot developed as part of the US military's 'Future Combat Systems' program was a small, unmanned vehicle known as a SUGV (pronounced 'sug-vee') which could be dispatched in front of troops to gauge the threat in an urban environment, Mr Brooks said.
The 13.6kg device, which measures less than a metre squared and can survive a drop of 10m onto concrete, has a small 'head' with infra-red and regular cameras which send information back to a command unit, as well as an audio-sensing feature called 'Red Owl' which can determine the direction from which enemy fire originates.
"It's designed to be the troop's eyes and ears and, unlike one of its predecessors, this one can swim, too," Mr Brooks said.
© Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd