Robot Animals - Fantasy or Closer than We Think?

Having once only existed in our imagination, robot animals are becoming more and more realistic and could soon be among us.
Robot Animals - Fantasy or Closer than We Think?

Last update: 02 April, 2021

If you sit down and try to imagine the future, robots will probably feature in some shape or form. Books, movies, and now even science itself have produced amazing things worthy of the great Isaac Asimov. But what about robot animals? Are we really that far away from seeing a cyber dog?

When it comes to combining robotics and biology, there are numerous specialist areas, from animal models for artificial intelligence to animatronics that can do amazing things like scaling walls. The advances are truly astonishing.

Robot animals right now

Humans have a tendency to look to replicate nature in order to improve their lives in some way. And robotic animals are just another extension of this. Here are few surprising things that humans have managed to create so far:

  • A robot that flies like a bat. This robot doesn’t just flap its wings and glide just like a bat; it also has an embedded infrared system that creates a three-dimensional map of the room, as a real bat would do with echolocation.
  • Robot ants that work together. As part of work to develop optimization algorithms, robot ants have been built that are able to communicate and cooperate with each other to solve problems. This is also useful for studying how swarms work.
  • Gecko robots: Geckos have the incredible ability to cling to any surface, no matter how smooth. They’re able to do this using micro spatulas on their fingers, which they have complete control over. By trying to replicate these structures, researchers have been able to develop different robots that can climb all manner of surfaces.
A graphic showing different potential robot animals.

Robots to solve moral dilemmas

Recently, a Californian company created a robot dolphin and introduced it into a zoo. It was so realistic that most visitors were unable to distinguish it from a real one.

This returns us to an old question: is it really ethical to keep animals in zoos for human learning and enjoyment? This company has suggested that this could be a potential solution. If we’re able to create robots that are so convincing as to be mistaken for real ones, why would we continue to keep animals in captivity at all?

This isn’t just limited to zoos either. Can you imagine a robot elephant walking through a nature reserve? Furthermore, we could even bring back animals that have long been extinct! And they don’t eat or drink, don’t have any special space requirements, and they’re practically immortal!

A world of possibilities, but there are reservations

Of course, this utopian idea where robot animals replace real ones might sound great, but this suggestion has still drawn criticism. Some argue that whilst this would lead to an end to animals confined in zoos, it could lead to the perception of animals as being merely a tool for human use instead.

Furthermore, the environmental impact of such a change has also been brought into question. Releasing robots into open spaces is a poor substitute for reality and could have serious consequences for nature. And that’s not to mention the fact that these are hardly biodegradable machines.

An image of a robot praying mantis.

There are many rational arguments on both sides of the debate. But what is certain is that we’re clearly at the beginning of a new age, and convincing robot animals are closer than ever before. And whether we choose to or not, they could be considered a solution to a number of long-standing ethical and environmental problems.

Will science finally bring back the mammoth or the dodo? Or will these robot animals simply become yet another symbol of human decadence? As ever, it remains to be seen, but the possibilities are seemingly endless.

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