What happens when animals and technology collide?

Artificial rat hybrids, genetically suicidal mosquitos and diapers made of jellyfish apparently

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Genetically-engineered mosquito larvae SPL, bbc.co.uk

For the most part, animals have drawn the short of the end of the stick in their ongoing relationship with the cruelest creature of all (hi, that’s us!). For many people, animals make up the last bastion of good old-fashioned organic life. We may be nuts about engineering artificial intelligence and synthesizing digital personalities, but we can all agree that a robot dog can’t hold a candle to the real thing. So it’s particularly interesting, if not slightly concerning, to observe the ways in which technology is changing our relationship with animals, especially as more and more species fritter away into extinction. This is, of course, down to our expansive, acquisitive nature – we want more yet give back so little and animals wind up suffering the consequences of our efforts to slake our newfound technological thirst. Here we take a look at the complex ways in which human technology is affecting animals and vice versa.

RISE OF THE ANIMAT

In the world of synthetic biology, animats and ‘hybrots’ are artificial animals, largely confined to virtual environments in academic labs. The first Animat was a virtual creation birthed at the Georgia Institute of Technology, powered by rat neurons. In the early stages, animats only existed digitally, but since the vast advancements in biotech, scientists have combined synthetic biology and hardware into physical robots (which often don’t resemble animals at all). At the same time, researchers have also pursued the broad issue of the ‘synthetic animal,’ which includes new species engineered with a minimal set of specific traits, such as Eduardo Moreno’s pioneering fruit fly, Drosophila synthetica, which was assembled with “off-the-shelf” genetic tools. Moreno’s abstract describes his creation as a product of genetic manipulation that “may never be able to survive outside the laboratory environment,”but future iterations of such synthetic animals, given the advances in piezo-materials, haptics, BCIs and other tech fields, will be game-changing. At the end of the day, the basic push behind animat research is to study how the animal cells develop and connect with each other, based on sensory input from robot components, which inevitably feeds back into the robot’s behavior and the way it interacts with its physical environment. Now, with the addition of two extra letters to our DNA alphabet, the field of synthbio has become infinitely more exciting and powerful, with some understandable moral and intellectual trepidation. Personal ethics aside, it’s clear that the future of synthetic animals is nigh. 

banner - a scene from the film Splice
Still from the film Splice, 2009

GEO-TAGGING AND POACHING 

One of the most popular tech-related stories of the week was this disturbing trend of poaching and geo-tagged photos taken by avid Instagrammers on vacation. Eleni de Wet posted a picture of a sign in South Africa, warning tourists about the dangers of sharing rhino pictures on social media sites. According to a marketing spokesperson for South Africa’s national parks, “The method is to send a young couple on safari with a GPS-enabled smartphone, which they use to take a photo of the rhino. The exact coordinates are attached to the picture, allowing poachers to come in after dark and track the animal.” What does this mean for the future of human infrastructure in precarious natural environments, especially in the rural areas dependent on this very sort of mod-con tourism, and especially given that most images automatically have geo-data anyway?

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A sign in South Africa Eleni de Wet

OF MICE AND MEN AND PARIS HILTON

So far, the greatest upset in science this year was the discovery that male researchers scare the living shit out of lab mice, potentially (retroactively) tainting a century of scientific research. According to researchers at McGill University in Montreal, they found that “male-related stimuli induced a robust psychological stress response that [resulted] in stress-induced analgesia. This effect could be replicated with T-shirts worn by men, bedding material from gonadally intact and unfamiliar male mammals, and presentation of  compounds secreted from the human axilla.”The reason seems to lie in the mice’ natural inclination to compete with other lone males, whom they view as threats. Oddly enough, in 2007, the same researcher noticed that male lab mice would calm down in the presence of a cardboard Paris Hilton cut-out. 

3) Manhandling just took on a whole new meaning (C
Manhandling just took on a whole new meaning Creative Commons

SUICIDAL TENDENCIES 

Brazil just approved the commercial release of a genetically modified mosquito, Aedes aegypti, in hopes of cutting down on dengue fever before the World Cup this year. The lab-bred Aedes aegypti are biologically programmed to basically die off before sexual maturity. This is a pretty clear-cut example of beneficial biotech, though some critics have pointed out that other species of mosquito are also dengue carriers, so targeting this one strain isn’t enough. While this isn’t the first instance of biotech companies deploying suicidal mosquitoes, it’s definitely the most high-profile mass release on a large commercial scale, forming an interesting precedent for future “quick fix” approaches to epidemics. 

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Genetically-engineered mosquito larvae SPL, bbc.co.uk

SYNTHETIC SKINS 

Researchers at Harvard have developed a “realistic simulated shark skin” that can “boost swimming by up to 6.6% while reducing the energy cost.” Since ethics are kind of a big deal, scientists couldn’t play around with real sharkskin for research, and decided to make their own by examining a mako shark found in a local fish market. This is a fantastic step for biomimetic skins, which have a wide range of applications such as military camouflage, drug and cosmetic tests, diving tech, sportswear and anything remotely related to textiles. Coupled with the rise of extra-thin, extra-flexible machine parts, a biomimetic approach to wearables may add a practical functionality to what currently amounts to an elitist fashion fad.

5) Zhora's synthetic snake may become a reality (B
Zhora's synthetic snake may become a reality Blade Runner

HYDROMASH, THE NEW PAPER? 

Hydromash is a new material made from jellyfish, which Israeli developers hope to use for absorbent paper products such as “napkins, medical sponges, diapers and, of course, ‘paper’ towels.”  For many beachy tourist areas and fishing territories plagued with overpopulated jellies, it seems sensible to, uh, repurpose them into hydromash, which “can hold several times its weight in water, and unlike the polymers that currently make up absorbent material in diapers and other products, breaks down in about 30 days. The product owes its absorbent abilities to its cellular structure of jellyfish bodies.”

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Jellyfish, the new paper?

3D MANTIS 

The interwebs recently bathed in the glory of praying mantises wearing tiny 3D glasses in the name of 3D research. The praying mantis is the only invertebrate that can see in three dimensions, so I’m not really sure what double-3D vision would do to its tiny little brain besides possibly explode it, but trust science to see what kind of secrets the mantis holds for visual tech and depth perception research

SKETCH AQUARIUM

A Japanese company, teamLab, has launched an interactive “future park” where kids can design a creature and interact with it in a virtual environment: “First, children choose a template of the fish that they want to see swim in the aquarium and color it however they like. After scanning the completed drawing, their fish appear on a giant screen and start swimming around. The images are programmed to move like real fish, undulating and changing direction in the water. (Fish of the same type will sometimes create schools and swim together.) Adding a playful, interactive element to the display, a piece of food will appear when children get close to the digital screen, causing the fish to swarm.” The aquarium itself appears to be a limited-times, limited-locations kind of deal, but hopefully other educational institutions (hint, hint) could pick up on this novel approach to cultivate scientific creativity at a younger age. It’s also a brilliant way of showcasing the potential of virtual tech in education, especially since it also encourages collaboration between the kids. 

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Kids exploring teamLab's Sketch Aquarium teamLab Kids Spotlight

BIOMIMETIC DEFENCE SYSTEMS 

We recently went over the mantis shrimp’s ridiculously tough shell and ultra-powerful club punch, but with the increasing interest in biomimetic defense (really, nobody wants to admit all the research is probably really for the offense), why stop there? A new security system for ATMs draws inspiration from the bombardier beetle, which sprays predators with what ETH Zurich describes as “the most aggressive chemical defense system in nature.There’s also this vaguely nightmarish Martian robot, which was inspired by the defensie cartwheeling strategy of the Moroccan spider or “flic-flac” spider. In the video below, we can see the robot, named Tabbot, “cartwheeling” while conserving as much energy as possible.

CLONE WARS

Cattle cloning is becoming a real issue in livestock competitions, and if we end up mass cloning performance animals too, the archaic practice of ‘thoroughbreeding’ and vaguely noxious idea of ‘pure’ bloodlines just might finally crawl into a hole and die. Perhaps this isn’t such a big deal for animals destined for the plate, but the idea of cloned domestic pets is decidedly dystopic. Take, for example, Rebecca Smith, the owner of a daschund named Winnie, who won a competition to have Winnie cloned by a South Korean biotech firm. Sooam Biotech hopes to angle itself as a source of eternal life for people and their beloved pets, but to what end? 

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