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Turtle becomes 'biobot' with scheme that controls voluntary behavior

Drawing of turtle
A drawing shows the cylindrical mechanism used to control a turtle's instinctual obstacle avoidance behavior.KAIST / PLoS One

Turtles, like most critters, instinctively avoid obstacles. Researchers have tapped into this instinct to steer a turtle without sticking probes into its brain or muscles, an achievement that could lead to a world crawling with animals doing the bidding of humans.

The feat is achieved by attaching a half cylinder to the turtle's shell that is remotely controlled to turn one way or another. Part of the cylinder mimicks an obstacle, compelling the turtle to take what appears to be the obstacle-free path.

Until now, controlling the behavior of critters, such as cockroaches and rats, has largely been achieved by electronically stimulating relevant brain areas or muscles, note the turtle-controlling researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Unlike direct stimulation of the brain or muscles, the team calls their scheme "non-invasive" in a paper published April 17 in the journal PLoS One. Rather, they add, it evokes "an appropriate voluntary instinctive behavior." That is, instead of steering turtles with electrical jolts, they slide an obstacle into the turtle's field of vision, knowing that the turtle will instinctively turn to avoid it.

Scientists are increasingly devising ways to manipulate the behavior of living critters to accomplish specialized tasks such as surveillance and reconnaissance as an alternative to robots that "are still far from artificially reproducing a level of intelligence even of insects," the team writes in the paper.

The ingenuity of the approach is questionable, according to Alper Bozkurt, an electrical engineer at North Carolina State University who has worked on remote-control cockroaches.

"What is being done here is a modern version of the carrot-stick strategy to navigate the animal," he told NBC News via email. It relies on observations about a turtle obstacle avoidance behavior, and using that knowledge to devise a strategy to steer them.

For now, the apparatus to achieve navigation is a rather clunky remotely-controlled cylinder that rotates around the turtle to mimic an obstacle in its field of view, as demonstrated in video below.

Now that the concept is proven, refinements could lead to less-clunky obstacles – think glasses with lenses that duplicate obstacles, suggested IEEE – and be applied to other critters with good vision.

"Hawks, cats, lizards and carp are good candidates," the researchers write. "They are also big and strong enough to carry larger devices. Through our on-going research, we already found that the same framework can be employed to control fish."

Before the research community races down this path, Bozkurt expressed caution.

"These animals are more complex in their instincts and also feel 'pain,' which is not a concern for invertebrates," he noted.

– via IEEE and Discover

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.