Pentagon Cyborg-insect Program Could Save Quake Victims

The New Scientist magazine is reporting on an intriguing and brazen new Pentagon program that would create living “OrthopterNets”, communication networks made of insects implanted with special technologies to modulate their wingbeats. Crickets, cicadas and katydids, all use their wings to generate sounds, the patterns of which communicate information to others of their kind. The Pentagon wants to use this natural communications network to prompt the insects to emit specific sounds in the presence of specific chemicals.

The result would be cyborg insects, living insects with technology integrated into their physical composition. The technology could have broad application, including “sniffing” applications in the search for toxins, concealed chemical or biological agents, hazmat detection, and even the search for survivors from natural disasters. A number of factors impede the timely locating of survivors buried in rubble after earthquakes or other major disasters.

Ben Epstein of OpCoast, who reportedly developed the idea after hearing insects modifying their sound in relation to each other’s calls, said researchers “could do this by adjusting the muscle tension or some other parameter that affects the sound-producing movements. The insect itself might not even notice the modulation”. According to The New Scientist:

As well as a biochemical sensor and a device for modulating the wing muscles, the electronics package would contain an acoustic sensor designed to respond to the altered calls of other insects. This should ensure the “alarm” signal is passed quickly across the network and is ultimately picked up by ground-based transceivers.

OrthopterNets could vastly expand the information gathering and chemical detection capabilities of authorities seeking to solve pressing security problems, like chemical and bio-agent detection at major ports or the search for survivors buried under significant amounts of wreckage after a disaster. They might also mean a more conservative option for such tasks than self-replicating nano-bots, which many fear could escape human control.

In fact, OrthopterNets offer an important and instructive test for nano-technology, in that the engineering of such miniaturized circuits may benefit from the smallest-scale engineering available to human science. Using such decentralized, spontaneous communications systems to effectively restructure and optimize information search and extraction capabilities means a landmark moment in the development of hyper-convergent communications technologies.

The overlap between planned communications networking technologies and decentralized, organic and geologic patterns is a new frontier in communications and information technology, with the cyborg sniffer insects possibly marking only the first step in that direction. Artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil predicts the human species will adopt cyborg capabilities to vastly enhance both survival-oriented and social functions, in the not-too-distant future.

The release of cyborg crickets into a disaster area could help authorities and rescue teams create real-time, evolving chemical maps, to detect no only the possible location of survivors, but of hazardous releases possibly caused by the disaster and even —where underlying materials are known— of unstable or shifting debris. Military uses might include minefield mapping and the location of weapons stores or mountain hideouts.

The New Scientist also reported last year that cyborg insects might be used as “discreet spies”. For instance:

THE next time a moth alights on your window sill, watch what you say. Sure, it may look like an innocent visitor, irresistibly drawn to the light in your room, but it could actually be a spy – one of a new generation of cyborg insects with implants wired into their nerves to allow remote control of their movement. Be warned, flesh-and-blood bugs may soon live up to their name.

That article also notes that researchers have developed cyborg remote-control capabilities for “rats, pigeons and even sharks”. The technologies could be used for eavesdropping and other covert detection tasks. The first cyborg rat, achieved by researchers in 2002, was directed with a combination of contact and reward stimuli to specialized regions of its brain, then “freed” to use its own sniffing instincts to detect the presence of explosives in a targeted location.

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