Cyborg Insects Join the Military
Remote-controlled critters are real
This article originally appeared at Motherboard.
Somewhere in a CIA testing facility in the 1960s a body lay anaesthetised upon a table with a team of scientists huddled around. The scientists prepared to surgically implant a microphone for spying, fitted inside the ear, along with an antenna woven under the skin and a radio transmitter at the base of the skull. The finishing touch to this living, walking, spying machine would be a battery pack attached to the stomach.
This new cyborg hope for the CIA was not a $6-million man, but a $15-million cat. When the scientists were done, they turned their subject loose on a nearby park. It fled and was promptly run over by a taxi, bringing “Operation Acoustic Kitty” to its untimely end. (Heavily-redacted documents detailing the agency’s “examination of trained cats” can be viewed here.)
The use of animals in military operations often carries a hint of the absurd. Sometimes their roles follow common logic, for example the dog that helped find Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, or the horses still used in combat in the U.S. and U.K. But sometimes it’s hard to distinguish fact from surrealist fiction. Did the Polish army really draft into its ranks a bear named Wojtek? Did the Soviet army of World War II really launch a battalion of reindeer? Did the U.S., around the same time, harbor dreams of dropping “bat bombs” on Japan? And is it currently training combat dolphins?
In fact, yes, at least at various points in the past (although the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program maintains it trains dolphins for threat detection rather than attack). The future of combat creatures, however, likely lies in something more sci-fi: bioengineering.
In her 2014 book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, author Emily Anthes details experiments designed to breed, augment and engineer living creatures, from cloned sheep to cyborg rats to fish designed to glow in the dark.
Anthes told me that the CIA’s effort to turn cats into spies was the strangest experiment she came across. “I still find it hard to believe that electronic equipment was actually surgically implanted into a cat for that purpose,” she said. “It can’t help but make you wonder what other research was going on that we don’t know about.”
What we do know is that biotechnology is developing faster now than ever before. “It’s already more common than people may realize,” Anthes said. “Many cloned farm animals are born every year in the U.S., and even since my book came out two years ago the advances in biotechnology have been astonishing.”
Experiments like the cyborg cat might have been conducted in secrecy (the plan was only revealed in 2001, when a former CIA officer spoke to the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph), but other research has taken place in public. In 2006, DARPA published a notice soliciting “Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS)” on a publicly-accessible “Federal Business Opportunities” site. “MEMS” are “micro-electromechanical systems.” It was an open call for insect cyborgs.
I asked Anthes why she thought the military was so keen to work with insects. “I’d imagine there are several reasons,” she said. “Firstly those creatures are simpler to work with, biologically speaking. It’s much easier to commandeer an insect’s nervous system than a dog’s or a human’s. But also, for the specific applications they were imagining, I believe they wanted small, inconspicuous animals.”
The reasoning behind their call was also similar to that behind the Acoustic Kitty decades earlier: technology piggybacking on an already-living, remote control “insect drone” would be easier than building a robot from scratch. In this case, the creature would have the advantage of natural flight.
A chapter of Frankenstein’s Cat is given to what followed DARPA’s open call. Anthes visits the team led by electrical engineer Michel Maharbiz at the University of California, Berkeley, which has successfully turned the Mecynorrhina torquata (flower beetle) into a DARPA-funded flying machine. First they anaesthetized the beetle in a freezer, then punctured its exoskeleton and threaded steel wire into its brain and basalar muscles, which regulated its wings. Connecting the wires to an insect “backpack” crammed with a circuit board, a battery and a tiny radio receiver, the system could be used to shock the beetles into veering left or right during flight, or dropping from the air entirely.
Since then, Maharbiz has developed a newly wireless insect-control system using a neural implant, engineers at Cornell University unveiled a nuclear-powered transponder for use with cyborg insects, and a series of cyborg moths have been created, the latest of which is remote-controlled and was built at North Carolina State University. In the future, it appears, humans might be spared warfare, which will be fought increasingly by swarms of bionic micro-drones.
But Anthes crushes any dreams of a beetle battalion.
“We’re pretty far away from a cyborg insect army,” she said. “What scientists have managed to do already is amazing: they can remotely and wirelessly steer insects in mid-air! But the controls are still extremely crude. A lot more work will be required before these insects are ready to be used in the real world, and whether they actually ever get deployed — for military or civilian purposes — is still anyone’s guess.”
The use of military animals continues to be controversial. The U.K. Ministry of Defense has defended its deliberate wounding of pigs to simulate battlefield injuries, while the U.S. military still classifies its dogs as “equipment” despite petitions calling for change. But an insect is far harder to feel emotionally attached to. And as to the debate about the intrinsic value of creatures versus their instrumental value, it’s hard for anyone who has picked up a fly swatter or used insect killing spray to protest that they value the lives of invertebrates.
I asked Jared Adams of DARPA’s public affairs division about experiments with cyborg invertebrates, and how DARPA address the ethics and social repercussions of this kind of research. He directed me to DARPA’s 2015 report “Breakthrough Technologies for National Security,” which states that “the Agency must be fearless about exploring new technologies and their capabilities; this is DARPA’s core function … It is important to recognize that technological advances are bound to keep generating new societal quandaries, and that resolving them will demand broad community engagement.”
But a beetle cannot speak if it is suffering, and DARPA’s experiments with “tethered animals” solicited responses ranging from “absolutely terrifying” and “an unnecessary and cruel project” to accusations of “heartless and sadistic sociopathy.”
Adams informed me DARPA’s research into Hybrid Insect Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (HIMEMS) “did not transition to either a commercial or government partner,” and concluded in 2012, though he did not disclose the reasons why.
Interestingly, insect neuro-jacking has since become a DIY affair, not quite mainstream, but available in toy shops. A company called Backyard Brains produces Neuron SpikerBox kits for experimentation at home or in schools (a box of cockroaches is extra).
Meanwhile in labs, research continues independent of military involvement. Robotic cockroaches can help find the survivors of earthquakes, bees can sniff out explosives, and it is hoped that the cyborg beetles will soon be used in search-and-rescue operations. Non-insect drones are even beginning to emulate their habits. The benefits are myriad, but if insects have made you squeamish before, their futuristic counterparts will make you doubly so.
One paper entitled “The Trouble With Insect Cyborgs” cites our cultural history of describing insects in terms of automation and ‘robotic’ labor — Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy (1664) describes “insectile Automata’, while 18th century naturalist Charles Bonnet speaks of insects as “petites Machines.” The paper’s author, Adam Dodd, concludes that “tellingly, the possibility of insect emotion, or indeed any conception of insects that starts outside the strictly mechanist paradigm, is not addressed by the DARPA-funded programs involved in the creation of insect cyborgs.”
DARPA’s insects notably lived normal lifespans, but the co-opting of a creature’s nervous system, transforming it into a tiny somnambulist, remains inherently chilling.
“It’s a complex issue, and my feelings about it are complex,” Anthes said of her experiences writing Frankenstein’s Cat. “I found myself constantly toggling back and forth between feeling awe at what scientists could do, and feeling slightly creeped out that they were doing it.”
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