June 7, 2012 at 7:02 PM ET
When we all become mindless automatons following around a mechanical leader, we may look back on an innocent-sounding robotic fish experiment playing out today as the beginning of the end.
A team of U.S. and Italian researchers report they’ve successfully attracted individual and shoals of live zebrafish to cluster around a robot built to resemble a fertile female of their own kind, with biologically appealing stripes and coloring.
The feat is the latest milestone on a path to using autonomous robots in an open body of water to monitor and control fish behavior in order to protect them, according to the team.
“We would like to use these robots for guiding fish away from danger,” Maurizio Porfiri, an engineer at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, told me today.
For example, the robots could be used to steer fish away from an oil spill, or lure invasive fish into a net, he said.
To achieve that goal, the team needs to build a robot that moves, looks and behaves like the type of fish other fish want to be around and follow.
In earlier research, Porfiri and his colleagues showed that golden shiners will line up and follow a moving robot fish, presumably in order to take advantage of the energy-saving hydrodynamics.
In the new study, published June 8 in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, the team was focused on attraction.
They put the robot in a tank that had transparent walls separating it from adjacent tanks containing individuals and shoals of zebrafish.
“What we try to understand is how we can design visual features of the robot so that they can elicit attraction for the fish,” Porfiri explained.
The wall between the robot and the test subjects kept the fish from swimming to the robot for hydrodynamic advantages or shelter.
They found that a robot designed with enhanced biologically attractive features, such as the round shape of a fertile female, and beating a tail (despite noise from the motor) was attractive to the real fish.
While preference for the robot never exceeded that for real fish, the findings show that fish will pay attention to a robot. Combine that with hydrodynamic advantages, and the robots begin to sound like compelling leaders.
The final step (nail in the coffin?) is to give the robot some attractive intelligence.
“In most of the previous studies that we have done, the robot is always doing the same thing, irrespective of what the fish is doing,” Porfiri said.
In the future, they want the robot to make behavioral decisions based on what the fish are doing -- for example, swimming in such a way that it’s irresistibly advantageous for other fish to swim behind.
“We want to make sure first that we do have an attraction and that the fish are conditioned for the attraction,” Porfiri said. “And then we want to integrate those into some algorithms that we can use for providing intelligence to the robot.”
While that may sound futuristic enough that we don’t have to worry about robots taking control of the fish anytime soon, Porfiri said the behavioral studies are coming out in a few months.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.