An Insect-size Microrobot

In their paper “Scaling down an insect-size microrobot, HAMR-VI into HAMR-Jr”, Kaushik Jayaram (Harvard Microrobotics Lab) and his co-authors present HAMR-Jr, a 22.5 mm, 320 mg quadrupedal microrobot. “With eight independently actuated degrees of freedom, HAMR-Jr is … the most mechanically dexterous legged robot at its scale and is capable of high-speed locomotion … at a variety of stride frequencies … using multiple gaits.” (Abstract) The scientists achieved this “using a design and fabrication process that is flexible, allowing scaling with minimum changes to our workflow”. They “further characterized HAMR-Jr’s open-loop locomotion and compared it with the larger scale HAMR-VI microrobot to demonstrate the effectiveness of scaling laws in predicting running performance” (Abstract) . The work is partially funded by the DARPA SHort Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms and the Department of Defense (DoD) through the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Program. There is no doubt that the military is interested in miniature robots that are as big as cockroaches. They are certainly just as interested in animal cyborgs that use cockroaches as the commercial RoboRoach. At least no animals will be harmed in the scientific project. The paper is available here.

A Robot Dog as Sheepdog

In May 2020 the media was interested in a video by Rocos showing a robot from Boston Dynamics trying to be a shepherd dog. You could see the artificial quadruped running towards a flock of sheep. “Now, it’s clear that the video is mostly a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will soon be replacing sheepdogs.” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) According to the magazine, it does invite a tantalizing question: if that did happen, “how well would the robots fare” (The Verge, 22 May 2020)? “Terrible”, is the straight answer of sheep farmer and author James Rebanks. “The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog …” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) However, the profession of shepherd is not everywhere in the world the dream of all boys and girls, and shepherd dogs do not fall from the sky. It is also not clear whether there is a big difference for the sheep and how positively or negatively they react to the machine. It is just as unclear whether lambs that have never met real dogs would be comfortable with it. This would have to be researched in animal psychology and social robotics and in disciplines such as animal-machine interaction, which are still in their infancy. Only then would one know whether the shepherd interviewed by the magazine is right.

Towards Animal-machine Interaction

Animal-machine interaction (AMI) and animal-computer interaction (ACI) are increasingly important research areas. For years, semi-autonomous and autonomous machines have been multiplying all over the world, not only in factories, but also in outdoor areas and in households. Robots in agriculture and service robots, some with artificial intelligence, encounter wild animals, farm animals and pets. Jackie Snow, who writes for New York Times, National Geographic, and Wall Street Journal, talked to several people on the subject last year. In an article for Fast Company, she quoted the ethicists Oliver Bendel (“Handbuch Maschinenethik”) and Peter Singer (“Animal Liberation”). Clara Mancini (“Animal-computer interaction: A manifesto”) also expressed her point of view. The article with the title “AI’s next ethical challenge: how to treat animals” can be accessed here. Today, research is also devoted to social robots. One question is how animals react to them. Human-computer interaction (HCI) experts from Yale University recently looked into this topic. Another question is whether we can create social robots specifically for animals. The first beginnings were made with toys and automatic feeders for pets. Could a social robot replace a contact person for weeks on end? What features should it have? In this context, we must pay attention to animal welfare from the outset. Some animals will love the new freedom, others will hate it.

Billions of Trees, Planted by Drones

Flash Forest, a Canadian start-up, plans to plant 40,000 trees in the north of Toronto within a few days. It uses drones, i.e. technology that also plays a role in detecting and fighting forest fires. By 2028, it aims to have planted a full 1 billion trees. “The company, like a handful of other startups that are also using tree-planting drones, believes that technology can help the world reach ambitious goals to restore forests to stem biodiversity loss and fight climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that it’s necessary to plant 1 billion hectares of trees – a forest roughly the size of the entire United States – to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” (Fast Company, 15 May 2020) It is without doubt a good idea to use drones for planting. But you have to remember that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) of this type have a bad energy balance. Above all, however, birds and other creatures must not be frightened away and must not be hurt (see, e.g., this article). In this context, insights from animal-machine interaction and machine ethics can be used.

Dogs Obey Social Robots

The field of animal-machine interaction is gaining new research topics with social robots. Meiying Qin from Yale University and her co-authors have brought together a Nao and a dog. From the abstract of their paper: “In two experiments, we investigate whether dogs respond to a social robot after the robot called their names, and whether dogs follow the ‘sit’ commands given by the robot. We conducted a between-subjects study (n = 34) to compare dogs’ reactions to a social robot with a loudspeaker. Results indicate that dogs gazed at the robot more often after the robot called their names than after the loudspeaker called their names. Dogs followed the ‘sit’ commands more often given by the robot than given by the loudspeaker. The contribution of this study is that it is the first study to provide preliminary evidence that 1) dogs showed positive behaviors to social robots and that 2) social robots could influence dog’s behaviors. This study enhance the understanding of the nature of the social interactions between humans and social robots from the evolutionary approach. Possible explanations for the observed behavior might point toward dogs perceiving robots as agents, the embodiment of the robot creating pressure for socialized responses, or the multimodal (i.e., verbal and visual) cues provided by the robot being more attractive than our control condition.” (Abstract) You can read the full paper via dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3371382.3380734.

Another Animal-friendly Machine

Between June 2019 and January 2020 the project HAPPY HEDGEHOG (HHH) was implemented at the School of Business FHNW. Initiator and client was Oliver Bendel. In the context of machine ethics, the students Emanuel Graf, Kevin Bollier, Michel Beugger and Vay Lien Chang developed the prototype of a lawnmower robot that stops working as soon as it discovers a hedgehog. HHH has a thermal imaging camera. If it encounters a warm object, it further examines it using image recognition. At night a lamp mounted on top helps. After training with hundreds of photos, HHH can identify a hedgehog quite accurately. Firstly, another moral machine has been created in the laboratory, and secondly, the team provides a possible solution to a problem that frequently occurs in practice: commercial lawnmower robots often kill baby hedgehogs in the dark. HAPPY HEDGEHOG could help save them. The video on youtu.be/ijIQ8lBygME shows it without casing; a photo with casing can be found here. The robot is in the tradition of LADYBIRD, another animal-friendly machine.

Virtual Reality for Cows?

Various media claimed in November 2019 that there would be very special experiments with cows in Russia. There are pictures circulating showing an animal wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset. This one could reduce anxiety and increase milk yield if it would show a pleasant environment – that’s at least the media’s assumption. But, according to The Verge, “it’s not at all clear whether this is a genuine trial or an elaborate marketing stunt” (The Verge, 26 November 2019). At the moment, there is hardly any evidence as to whether VR would work for cows. There is no doubt that it makes sense for humans, at least in the context of marketing. They could wear VR glasses to see a landscape with cows. They would then believe that most cows have a good life. But this good life does not exist. Cows suffer from what you do to them – some more, some less. “At the end of the day, what we can say is that someone took the time to make at least one mock-up virtual reality headset for a cow and took these pictures. We don’t need to milk the story any more than that.” (The Verge, 26 November 2019)

About the Urgence of Alternative Meat Production Methods

In 2019, Germany – once again- has been facing various scandals about food, to be concrete, about animal food. Starting with the outcome of the cruelty of milk cows in different dairy farms to the point of the latest occurrence – the scandal of the Wilke meat and sausage company. The manufacturer has sold plenty of meat and sausages contaminated with microbes and is now suspected of having caused the death of about 25 people, who have consumed their products. This again claims for the need of alternatives to animal products. One could be the production of meat by 3D printing, as the russian start-up Toubia tries to. With its method, the ISS has already printed steaks in space. This procedure would also lead to an increased reduction of carbon dioxid. But then the issue arises, whether vegetarians could also eat such meat. In case of the vegan diet, the answer is clear, as they avoid all groceries which contain ingredients of animal origin. In case of the vegetarian one, the answer is more tricky. It clearly depends on the reason why vegetarians became vegetarians. If their motive simply has been the reduction of their personal (in-)direct carbon dioxid emission and/or to avoid such risks like in the case of Wilke, this would definitely be a good alternative. But if their motivation has been the reduction of animals being killed, it depends on the individual view of every vegetarian. Like for the traditional cheese production, meat produced by the method of Toubia is based on cow cells. It is now the question, whether the use of animal cells for the production of meat is already one form of slaughtering or not. In addition, this does not solve the issue about the dairy cattle. There is no alternative production method for milk products, yet, so they are still needed for such food. Thus, the carbon dioxid reduction still remains higher and incidents like the one alredy mentioned above still can occur. Additionally, a huge part of the slaughter cattle consists of those cows, which have to be “disposed” after their high-volume milk production – at least in Germany. This indicates that slaughting also will persist, even though alternatives are in use. Another possibility would be the 3D printing method of the Israelian start-up Jet Eat imitating the texture of meat with purely vegan ingredients. But here again, it is questionable, whether inveterate meat eaters would see it as a feasable alternative. All these questions listed here are only some of many concerning this topic, but they sufficiently show its complex of problems.

The Reversed Cyborg

Chimeras in the biological and medical sense are organisms that consist of cells or tissues of different individuals and yet form closed and viable (not necessarily reproductive) organisms. They can be located within a species or between species and can be both plants and animals. There are natural (blood chimeras in mammals) and artificial mixed organisms (grafting in plants, animal-human embryos). Cyborgs are not chimeras in this sense. Nevertheless, research in this field might also be relevant for them, in particular for inverted or reversed cyborgs, for example robots in which an animal or human brain or organ is implanted. Animal-human chimeras for the production of human organs are regarded as unproblematic by many ethicists. According to a comment by Oliver Bendel, this is astonishing, since findings from animal ethics and veterinary medicine and in particular suffering and death of non-human living beings are ignored.

The Fight against Plastic in the Seas

The pollution of water by plastic is a topic that has been in the media for a few years now. In 2015, the School of Engineering FHNW and the School of Business FHNW investigated whether a robotic fish – like Oliver Bendel’s CLEANINGFISH (2014) – could be a solution. In 2018, the information and machine ethicist commissioned another work to investigate several existing or planned projects dealing with marine pollution. Rolf Stucki’s final thesis in the EUT study program was based on “a literature research on the current state of the plastics problem worldwide and its effects, but also on the properties and advantages of plastics” (Management Summary, own translation). “In addition, interviews were conducted with representatives of the projects. In order to assess the internal company factors (strengths, weaknesses) and external environmental factors (opportunities, risks), SWOT analyses were prepared on the basis of the answers and the research” (Management Summary) According to Stucki, the results show that most projects are financially dependent on sponsors and donors. Two of them are in the concept phase; they should prove their technical and financial feasibility in the medium term. With regard to social commitment, it can be said that all six projects are very active. A poster shows a comparison (the photos were alienated for publication in this blog). WasteShark stands out as a robot. He is, so to speak, the CLEANINGFISH who has become reality.