• Fri
  • Nov 28, 2014
  • Updated: 11:56am

Cybugs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 August, 2009, 12:00am

Unless you bump into British scientist Kevin Warwick, who has had a chip implanted here and a neural interface grafted on there, you are unlikely to come across a cyborg (part living being, part machine) in a shopping mall. But one day, you might hear one that resembles a flying bug whirring overhead because cyborg development - the allure of which has again been demonstrated, on the silver screen, with Cantonese blockbuster Metallic Attraction: Kung Fu Cyborg - has sprouted wings.

Keep an eye out for the unsettling presence of the cool but creepy Hi-Mems Cyborg Beetle Microsystem. The beetle-borg owes its existence to a team at the University of Michigan, in the United States, acting under the umbrella of Darpa (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), the US military powerhouse responsible for creating a string of hi-tech marvels.

A beetle recruited into the microsystem has several electrodes embedded in it. One connects with the control region of its brain while two others are implanted in the right and left muscles that manipulate the wings.

Doubtless, during the Hi-Mems development process, there have been tailspins to rival the Wright Brothers' early prangs but the borg is nimble: it can take off and land, turn left or right and demonstrate an array of other manoeuvres.

The beetle-borg is the brainchild of engineering wizard Dr Amit Lal, who was inspired by historical precedents; for thousands of years, mankind has exploited the power of natural locomotion. We have travelled astride elephants and horses, dispatched messages attached to the legs of pigeons and trained bees to pinpoint explosives. He borrowed the idea for remote-controlled insects from the 1990 sci-fi fable Sparrowhawk, by Thomas A. Easton. In the novel, Easton, a professor of science, describes genetically engineered animals equipped with implanted control structures.

As you would expect of such a way-out creation, the beetle-borg has some curious potential uses; it could be deployed to detect survivors of earthquakes, for instance, or it might be enlisted to spy on an enemy - or for an even darker purpose. At a pinch, the cyber-insect might become an organic version of the drones that inflict so much damage on the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Picture a squadron of tiny terminators guiding in a hail of rockets.

Given the threat of pesticide-induced death in action, the flyers should ideally be cockroaches. Even better, they could be pine beetles, such as the ones currently chewing through millions of hectares of North America's forests.

Other kinds of insect might have equally extraordinary bioengineering applications. Moths, for instance, are highly sensitive to certain chemical signals. So, as Easton imagines, instead of giving bank robbers money treated with telltale security dye, the chemical deployed could be moth pheromones. A moth-based borg could then zero in on a robber by tracking the scent - or so the theory goes.

Darpa is tinkering with moths too and anything could come out of that. There was another Darpa invention that once sounded outlandish but caught on - the internet.

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