A ratbot takes the pleasure line.
© S. Talwar et al.
Instinct overrides desire at a dangerous height.
© S. Talwar et al.
Desire drives remote-controlled rodents.
Remote-controlled rats could soon be detecting earthquake survivors or leading bomb-disposal teams to buried land mines.
Signals from a laptop up to 500 metres away make the rats run, climb, jump and even cross brightly lit open spaces, contrary to their instincts. The rodents carry a backpack containing a radio receiver and a power source that transmits the signals into their brains through electrical probes the breadth of a hair.
Learning for pleasure
Talwar’s team train the wired-up rats to turn left or right in a maze according to the artificial whisker stimuli. A jolt to the MFB rewards the rats for correct behaviour. After a week’s training the rats turn on cue without reward.
Thereafter frequent pleasure pulses motivate trained rats to navigate through virtually any environment. Extra pulses spur them on to challenges like climbing or jumping.
There is a limit to what the animals can be made to do: instinct tempers their eagerness for reward. For example, even continuous MFB stimulation cannot make a rat jump from a dangerous height.
Manipulating animal’s minds, especially for dangerous missions, raises ethical questions. "Debate is certainly needed," admits Talwar. But he points out that the rats live as long as normal, and when not wearing mind-altering backpacks they are just like any other rats. "They’re not zombies, they work with their instincts," he says.
In a way, ratbots are an extension of classical behavioural experiments in which animals learn to perform tasks in return for food, say. It’s just that the reward for leaning, as far as a ratbot is concerned, comes from within. This virtual learning could make ratbots a new model for studying animal behaviour.
TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service
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