Year of the Ratbot

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While we're celebrating the Year of the Rat, we should also take time to celebrate all the groovy developments in robotic rats we're likely to see this year. It's been six years since a group of researchers figured out how to direct a rat's movements with a brain implant and backpack controller (pictured). Recently, Chinese scientists announced they'd extended the technique to carrier pigeons. Now scientists have moved on to bigger and better ratbots. Find what's in store in the Year of the Ratbot.

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The first cool thing we've got is a robot controlled by pieces from a rat's heart. A couple of weeks ago, Discover magazine explained:

A team of researchers affixed heart tissue from a rat onto the body of the robot. When the tissue contracted, the robot's six horizontally aligned legs (see image) pulled together. When the tissue relaxed, the legs drew apart. The pulses propelled the robot forward through a solution at 100 micrometers per second (about 0.0002 mile per hour). The researchers hope to make other biocompatible devices that could one day carry clot-busting agents to clogged vessels.

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We're also about to get a crop of robots controlled with rat brains, or at least simulated rat brains. Last year, New Scientist explained:

A robot controlled by a simulated rat brain has proved itself to be a remarkable mimic of rodent behaviour in series of classic animal experiments. The robot's biologically-inspired control software uses a functional model of "place cells". These are neurons in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that help real rats to map their environment. They fire when an animal is in a familiar location.

Alfredo Weitzenfeld, a roboticist at the ITAM technical institute in Mexico City, carried out the work by reprogramming an AIBO robot dog, made by Japanese firm Sony, with the rat-inspired control software. When placed inside a maze, the robot learnt to navigate towards a "reward" in a remarkably similar way to real rodents, using landmarks to explore.

So in the year of the ratbot, look out for two things: robots controlled with pieces of rat bodies, and robots whose brains are modeled on those of our whiskery rodent friends. Yesterday's rat is tomorrow's robot!


Annalee Newitz

@jessse: There are actually several scifi books with rat protagonists! Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMN (yes the movie sucked but the book is AWESOME), as well as Doctor Rat, which is about a fascist lab rat who identifies with the people who experiment on him. It's very very bleak.