Attack of the giant mutant robo-ants


Saipan might have cornered the market in boonie dogs, but there’s a new breed of hound on the way. The Sega company has introduced a robotic dog called “Poochi” to the Japanese market. I don’t know if the first of the species will be introduced to Saipan by a tourist or by a resident, but Poochi will arrive one way or the other.

The line between “robot” and “automated toy” is a bit murky here, but at a reported price of $59 (6,000 Japanese yen) I think we’re looking at a toy, not something that is going to mow your lawn and do your calculus homework.

Still, everywhere you turn these days, there’s another robot story hitting the press.

It gets the imagination going. When I was a kid I liked the old black-and-white sci-fi flicks, and the lower the budget, the better, since the low-budget movies had the weirdest creatures.

So I was thinking along those lines, contemplating Poochi and what the future of robots might be, when I noticed that, yet again, I’m under siege by a battalion of ants.

The darned things are unstoppable!

But instead of fighting nature, maybe I should heed it. So, move over robotic dogs, I’ve got a bigger vision for the future: robotic ants.

Based on four minutes of sloppy Web research, I note that ants are a highly evolved form of life. There are over 12,000 species of them. They can lift somewhere between 10 times to 50 times their own weight. They have specialization in jobs. They have a form of ant agriculture growing fungus (yum!). They have a sort of colony-based “intelligence” that, somehow, coordinates various specialized tasks to keep their colonies chugging along.

Such are the results of something like 130 million years of evolution. Ants survived Earth’s last mass extinction. Dinosaurs didn’t.

That’s a pretty good résumé, you’ll admit. I can see it now: “Summary: World infestation since the Cretaceous era. Objective: Taking over Ed’s kitchen. Years of experience: 130,000,000. References: Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Ankylosaurus (all extinct).”

Although modern electronics perform all sorts of wizardry, and we think of robots in electronic terms, I wonder if science will ever be able to mimic some basic biology. How much of the humble ant could be synthesized, and scaled-up, with modern technology?

If I hit the lotto I’ll have the seed capital to start a robo-ant research and development laboratory in As Lito. I’d have to hire competent people do to the actual work, of course, but I’ll relish the notion of being some sort of visionary, big-picture guy. Allow me, then, to give you some of my big-picture guy concepts.

I don’t know how big our robo-ants will be, but human-sized is too obtrusive for constant household use. So I’m thinking, oh, a body the size of a soda can. That would make for a good pet.

The first order of business would be to design some sort of synthetic muscle fiber instead of using electric motors.

This raises the issue of how the synthetic muscles will be powered. Could sugar and oxygen, the stuff that powers animal tissue (I think), also be used to power robots with synthetic muscles? Well, probably not, since I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, but I won’t let that stand in the way of a good pipe-dream, and in the pipe-dream, the robo-ants will drink sugar water at feeding time.

As for the oxygen part of the equation, well, ants have a very decentralized way of harvesting it from the atmosphere. They don’t have lungs. That’s why they never smoke cigarettes. Ants are covered with pores called sporacles that oxygenate their tissue. So this is yet another item for the to-do list: After the synthetic muscles are invented, somebody will have to invent synthetic sporacles to go with them.

Once these tasks are completed, the biotechnology, or whatever it’s called, can be hitched to the electronic revolution. The robo-ant nervous systems will be electronic, and, of course, they’ll be able to electronically communicate with other robo-ants so they can coordinate various tasks.

Ants are ancient technology, so it’s humbling to consider just how much of it can’t be duplicated with today’s capabilities. Maybe the next great leap in technology will be on the biological frontier, focusing on tissues instead of transistors.

Or, maybe not. Maybe I just watched too many sci-fi flicks as a kid. Time will tell, I guess, but I’m sure Poochi has an opinion, too: “Woof, woof, beep.”

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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