If you listen to Elon Musk, you might think that robots and artificial intelligence are going to kill us all and ruin civilization as we know it. But until that future arrives, what if we used them for something good? And more specifically, what if we used them to repair or slow the damage humanity is doing to the Earth and the animals that live on it?
That’s the idea behind the exhibition Robotanica, which showcases 11 different projects that use robotics and technology as tools for good in the natural world. “We really wanted to move away from this discussion about the human-robot relationship and the negative connotations with technology regarding nature and really see how technology can strengthen and enrich the resilience of our ecology instead of just merely degrading it,” says Joannette van der Veer, the assistant curator of the exhibition.
The projects, which range from a data-collecting robot that acts like a tumbleweed to a woodpecker robot that behaves like the endangered bird, are now on display at the Transnatural Institute in the Netherlands.
Most of the ideas are conceptual, but they propose that robotics could be one way to stem some of the damage that humans have done to the environment. The woodpecker robot is a particularly intriguing example of this. The real woodpecker is on the verge of extinction, and its disappearance throughout forests causes a disruption in the ecosystem in which it belongs: Woodpeckers’ knocking on trees scares away insects, and without them, bugs get free reign to eat as much bark as they want. That’s where the robot steps in. Created by the artist Rihards Vitols in 2016, the device sits in trees and pecks at them, just like a real woodpecker might, using the same amount of force and making the same kinds of noise so that destructive bugs are scared away.
But wouldn’t it be better to focus on saving the real woodpeckers, rather than crafting a machine to do their job once they’ve vanished for good? “We maybe better focus on protecting the biological woodpeckers.,” says Arjen Bangma, the exhibition’s curator and founder of the Transnatural Institute. “They do the job a lot better than the technical creatures.” But Bangma points out that the robots can step in during periods when there are few birds so there is time to revitalize the population without doing irreparable damage to the rest of the local ecology.
Another research project proposes using nature’s best survivors–cockroaches–as the foundation for robots. Researchers at North Carolina State University have created prototypes of “insect biobots” that are composed of real bugs integrated with circuits. The cyborg bugs are implanted with chips at the larval stage in their development, and then their nervous system grows around the chip and incorporates it. The bugs can then be controlled using a computer, and could be sent to look for survivors when there’s a disaster or map hard to reach spaces. The idea is controversial: where is the ethical line when it comes to integrating animals with robotic parts? It’s an open question that will need to be explored as other ethical quandaries surrounding robots are debated.
Then there are tumbleweed robots, which take of the form of–you guessed it–tumbleweeds, rolling around in the desert as the wind blows. With its focus on tracking desertification, the robot takes environmental measurements and beams the data back to a central server, where scientists can analyze it.
They’re all intriguing ideas, many of which still remain in the research or concept phase. And some are downright silly, like a virtual reality headset for chickens, designed to give them more “space” and theoretically make them happier.
One day soon, we may have to use technology to preserve what we have left of the natural world–through robots or otherwise.