DARPA’s call essentially launched a grand science fair, one designed to encourage innovation and tap into the competitive spirit of scientists around the country.
The agency invited researchers to submit proposals outlining how they’d create steerable insect cyborgs and promised to fund the most promising projects. What the agency wanted was a remote-controlled bug that could be steered to within five meters of a target. Ultimately, the insects would also need to carry surveillance equipment, such as microphones, cameras or gas sensors, and to transmit whatever data they collected back to military officials.
The pamphlet outlined one specific application for the robo-bugs — outfitted with chemical sensors, they could be used to detect traces of explosives in remote buildings or caves — and it’s easy to imagine other possible tasks for such cyborgs. Insect drones kitted out with video cameras could reveal whether a building is occupied and whether those inside are civilians or enemy combatants, while those with microphones could record sensitive conversations, becoming bugs that literally bugged you.
As far-fetched and improbable as DARPA’s dream of steerable robo-bugs sounds, a host of recent scientific breakthroughs means it’s likely to be far more successful than Acoustic Kitty was. The same advances that enabled the development of modern wildlife-tracking devices — the simultaneous decrease in size and increase in power of microprocessors, receivers and batteries — are making it possible to create true animal cyborgs.
By implanting these micromachines into animals’ bodies and brains, we can seize control of their movements and behaviors. Genetics provides new options, too, with scientists engineering animals whose nervous systems are easy to manipulate. Together, these and other developments mean that we can make tiny flying cyborgs — and a whole lot more.
Engineers, geneticists and neuroscientists are controlling animal minds in different ways and for different reasons, and their tools and techniques are becoming cheaper and easier for even us nonexperts to use. Before long, we may all be able to hijack animal bodies. The only question is whether we’ll want to.