Watershed: A blog about water

Cockroach-driven robot A.I.

Roboticists constantly argue about how to create the best guidance and collision-avoidance artificial intelligence. Artificial vision is still not all that great, and the algorithms for decision-making — i.e. how the robot chooses which direction to turn around an obstacle — can produce overly predictable behavior. So in December, Garnet Hertz presented a novel solution: A robot that is guided by a cockroach.

Hertz built a four-wheeled robot with a ping-pong ball atop, which functions like a trackball; whatever direction and speed the ball rolls, the robot moves. Then he mounted a giant Madagascar hissing cockroach on top of the ball. When the robot encounters an oncoming object, a light shines on the roach from the corresponding direction, and the roach — which dislikes light, of course — turns to avoid it. This gives the robot a roach-like movement and, hence, a roach-like intelligence.

He’s got a terrific web site showing how it works, but my favorite part is where he addresses the ethics of roach guidance systems:

Is the cockroach in pain?

Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches make a loud “alert hiss” when they are angry. They also enjoy feel safe when crammed into a tight space. Their cuticle has no nerve endings in it. Because of these reasons, and because they do not illustrate a fearful hiss when controlling the robot, it is my opinion that they are in no pain, and do not mind being in the robot system.

It looks like the cockroach is being crushed when it is controlling the robot — is this so?

No. If you get down to the eye level of the insect, you can see that the foot-to-ground relationship of the cockroach to the trackball is very similar to a standard cockroach gait. That is, if you know what a standard cockroach gait looks like. And another thing: cockroaches appear to feel comforted and safe when they are slightly crushed. The native habitat of Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches is the forest floor; as a result, cramming underneath an object/leaf is an instinctively safe place. People tend to like open spaces, cockroaches tend to like confined spaces.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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