Build a better cockroach and, well, I'm not sure

The way technology is developing, soon we'll have R2D2s just about everywhere, if we don't watch out. Monday's Citizen, for instance, says scientists are working on a robot cockroach. Does not compute. In what way is the current biological cockroach so insufficiently disgusting and pestilential that we need the vermin equivalent of Robocop: bigger, dirtier, scarier? If you made it of pleasing aspect and fresh pine scent, to play music while vacuuming your house, I could see the appeal. But purists would surely quibble that it wasn't technically a robot cockroach.

In any event, these guys didn't go down that path. Their robot cockroach is so realistic it even smells like a cockroach. Perhaps you didn't know cockroaches smelled. But other cockroaches do. And this device, whose job is to infiltrate colonies of cockroaches then influence their behaviour, needs the right "perfume" or the disgusting little beasts will smell a rat. No wait, they'd like that. They'd smell a boot.

The ultimate goal is to have Roboroach "leading unwanted pests out of dark corners to where they can be eliminated." Here I got confused. Why not just give it laser beams so it can eliminate them where they squat? Or rather, since the green, matchbox-sized InsBot already has laser beams along with its sensors, why not give it more potent ones so it can Arnold the roaches: "Tehminated." But then I never understood why the Lost In Space robot wasn't given some slightly more useful anti-peril feature than the capacity to wave its arms going "Danger danger" either.

Experiments suggest roaches will follow InsBot into the light because their "desire for companionship is stronger than the need for dark." It's a bit sad, given that sociability, even with other roaches, is the first faintly desirable quality I've ever heard attributed to a cockroach and now it's to be their downfall. But science marches on, squashing bugs as it goes.

The Citizen said "this is only the first application..."; scientists "say they will soon be using robots to stop sheep jumping off cliffs, prevent outbreaks of panic in guinea fowl and encourage chickens to exercise." Huh? But according to Guy Theraulaz of the Center for Research on the Cognition of Animals in Toulouse, "A lot of chickens don't move at all and die as a result. They need to be encouraged to run around. Robots could do that." True. They could go around the farmyard scattering corn for the chickens to scurry around eating, along with bugs. It might not give them the pecks of Schwarzenegger, but should make them fit enough to expire of culinary causes.

Or, if that's too primitive, a robot that imitates a predator, transferring the panic attacks from the guinea fowl to the chickens? Call it flee-ercise. Other than that, I have no useful ideas on guinea fowl panic attacks as I wouldn't know how to soothe one even if scientists can, as Mr. Theraulaz hopes, "develop sensors to detect when birds start moving abnormally."

As for the sheep, "when one sheep jumps off a cliff to escape a predator, the others tend to follow. Mr. Theraulaz believes his team will soon be able to identify flock leaders and give them collars equipped with receivers. They will then train these sheep to stand still, or move, when the receivers emit a signal such as a sound or an electric shock."

Why not just get one of them carbon-based guard dogs? And meanwhile design the cyber-roach to get its biological fellows to jump off cliffs, succumb to panic attacks or expire from lack of exercise?

On the bright side, soon they'll have robots crawling up your intestines. Italian and Korean scientists are developing a tiny robot (the National Post said "wasp-sized," a phrase I'd avoid in the marketing stage) with a miniature camera, remote control and six little legs that could go where the sun don't shine, then stop or backtrack to check out suspicious spots. It sure beats an old-time colonoscopy.

So yes, science can perform wonders. But we still have to figure out the old-fashioned ways which are frivolous, which are pernicious and which are highly desirable even if they don't sound that great at first. I say let's try to work with nature not against it: A device to let the blind see would be good; implants or, worse, genetic modifications to give ordinary humans eagle eyes or chemical-sensitive antenna would not.

So I'm all for a robot to detect and maybe one day treat colon cancer, but I have no use for a poultry cyber-Simmons. Even once they've worked all the bugs out.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson