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[infowar.de] PI 02.05.02: RMA Cyborgs: Guided Rats
Philadelphia Inquirer May 2, 2002
Pentagon Project: Guided Rats
By Peter Boylan, Inquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is developing live remote-controlled rats that
eventually could be used to detect land mines and find people trapped in
The rats have electrical probes wired into their brains, and they can turn
left or right, climb and navigate mazes in response to commands issued by a
researcher using a laptop computer, according to a brief report in today's
"We can train and guide a rat to go over many terrains," said Dr. John K.
Chapin, the experiment's principal researcher. "We'd like to train rats to
go towards the smell of a person."
He envisions rats, equipped with electronic global positioning systems,
that could penetrate tiny openings and find humans in collapsed buildings.
They could locate land mines that soldiers would destroy.
The latest experiments, at the State University of New York's Downstate
Medical Center in Brooklyn, evolved from research intended to aid paralyzed
Chapin, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the medical school,
said he had been working in this field for about 20 years, using rats in
experiments to learn lessons intended to help treat disease and injury. A
recent paper looked at ways devices could be used to restore control of
arms and legs for paralyzed people.
Out of his earlier work came experiments with rats, leading Chapin and
researchers in his lab to test the remote-control guidance system in about
30 of the rodents. Five learned to comply through sensory clues with
researchers' orders well enough that Chapin sees a role for these animals
in rescue operations and clearance of land mines, a major health hazard in
other parts of the world.
Rats aren't heavy enough to trigger the mines. Instead, groups of them
could be guided over fields where land mines were suspected, Chapin said.
Explosives give off odors animals can detect.
Rats can cover as much as seven miles a day, he said.
"I would think of a squad of rats, 20 or 30 rats going out and canvassing
for mines or the site of a fallen building for people who would be buried."
The rats wear microchips and wireless data links to the commander's
computer on their backs. The researcher's signal, from up to 1,600 feet
away - the length of five football fields - stimulates the part of the
rat's brain that normally receives sensations from the animal's whiskers,
which rats use to navigate. When it responds properly, the rat is rewarded
with a signal that stimulates the pleasure center of its brain.
Chapin said the remote control works because the rat whose brain has been
stimulated responds as if its whiskers had touched something.
To reward its response, the researcher sends a second signal to the area of
the rat's brain that recognizes the consumption of food or water. The rat
feels as if its thirst or hunger has been satisfied.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's funding
agency for long-range, high-risk research, has sponsored Chapin's studies
since 1999 under a humanitarian grant. The agency's media spokeswoman did
not respond to calls seeking comment.
Some other researchers said the work was interesting but was an engineering
feat, not an advance in animal neuroscience.
Randy Gallistel, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers
University, said it was basically the same thing that scientists found they
could do almost 50 years ago by stimulating the reward-sensing area of a
"Without the gee-whizery, without the remote-control and so on, that this
kind of thing was possible has been obvious for decades," Gallistel said.
Howard Eichenbaum, a professor of psychology at Boston University, said the
research, while not a major advance, was "clever" and held the promise of
using animals as humans' "eyes" or as couriers to reach trapped victims.
Aside from the technological challenges, he said, there may be ethical
concerns about turning animals into "intelligent robots" serving humans.
"It's one thing to see a rat running around like this, people don't get too
emotional about that, but as soon as you get into dogs or work animals,
people start getting real excited."
Mary Beth Sweetland, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, deplored the experiments as well as the possible use of
"Rats are not Tonka trucks with whiskers," Sweetland said. "This is just
another way that people are showing how they really feel about rats."
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.
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