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Energy and Carnivorous Robots
Alex Steffen, 14 Sep 04

We've covered much of it before, but here's a sharp little roundup of energy developments over the past few weeks, including news of deepwater wind farms, a troubling faith that nuclear reactors are safer now (honestly they are!), nanoscale methods of improving yada yada, our post-oil future and this really, really creepy robotics research on the "EcoBot II":

"Robotics experts at the University of the West of England are working on an ominous and intensely disturbing project that would create an autonomous robot that would be able to generate its own energy by 'eating' flies, lured with human excrement, which would then be 'digested' in a microbial fuel cell. This seems like a catastrophic mistake to me, honestly, and 8 years from now, when we're all kept in laser-cages by our robot overlords and forced to shit into tubes to sustain the robots' enormous fly-farms like some nightmarish version of The Matrix, think back to this post and remember me!"

Several years ago, Worldchanging ally (and Earth Day founder) Denis Hayes -- who spends most of his time contemplating the environmental collapse of the planet and how to avoid it -- told me that the SlugBot (which hunts and eats slugs for fuel) was the most disturbing thing he'd heard of in a long time. The EcoBot II is wrong on so, so many more levels.

Those researchers at the University of the West must... be... stopped. It's for the future of humanity, people, the future of humanity.

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I realize that the "must... be... stopped" line is tongue-in-cheek, but I really have to disagree with you here, bro. The whole "robots will destroy us all!" meme is even more played out than the singularitan "robots will save us all!" notion. I mean, there have been *lots* more movies about evil robots than good ones (which reminds me, I really need to finish that screenplay...).

I'm actually pretty enthusiastic about the EcoBot II. It's an elegant solution to the problem of how to power long-duration remote sensors (mobile or otherwise) in environments (such as beneath the canopy in dense forests) where solar wouldn't work. Any concerns about device lifespan can be handled by limiting the amount of "lure" it has, and concerns about over-predation can be handled by varying the type of prey eaten, so as not to unbalance the local ecosystem.

Note the language used: "lifespan," "predation," "ecosystem." We'll need to be careful to think about the EcoBots (and their derivatives) as introduced species in an existing ecosystem, not simply as artificial devices. This is something we should already be aware of, even with the non-fly-eating introductions; I recall reading about how the use of leg-bands in ornithological research disrupted bird mating patterns when females started selecting males on the basis of the band color. The EcoBot just makes the blurring of the distinction between the "natural" and the "artificial" more obvious.

We've long recognized here that biology is increasingly influencing the course of other scientific and technological disciplines. EcoBots are biomimicry taken to a new (but not unprecedented) level. I think they're pretty cool.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 15 Sep 04

I was assuming that what we had here was WorldChanging's first full-on sarcastic post. I was thoroughly enjoying it, too.

Posted by: jesse black fahnestock on 15 Sep 04

yeah, I mean, secretly I think the EcoBot II was pretty cool too!

I somehow missed this incredible breakthrough on the topix alt-energy news site:

'Those in search of viable sources of alternative energy should forget about pursuing solar power, wind power, electric cells, or other forms of non-oil fuel juice. For a pure source of raw, rich energy there is nothing better than Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers."'

You know this stuff is really hitting the mainstream when it's used for movie hype.

Posted by: John Atkinson on 15 Sep 04

I very much agree with Jamais's comment. As with so many new technologies, the idea of a self-sustaining (though nowhere near self-aware, and definitely not self-interested, two big problems with matrix-type evil robots) machine stirs up a lot of feelings in people. Having worked in the academic research game for a while after college, I can tell you that a big part of getting research funding is having a catchy concept. It's very probable that the project was initially proposed to study the opportunities for scavenging robots of all kinds, and then the fly concept (and the slugbot for that matter) were chosen because they got attention. People high up on funding boards take one look at the project and say "Hmmm. There are flys bugging me today. I'll take it!" The researchers haven't fully explored the implications of their design, because proof of concept will allow them to get more funding to explore the most valid option for fuel source.

Idealy, they will choose something like a photosynthetic bacteria, or leaf litter on the ground, not something as high on the food chain as a fly.

Personally, I wish I had a roomba-type vacuum cleaner powered by dust. It seams obvious to me :)

Fire up your creativity at

Posted by: Dominic Muren on 16 Sep 04

I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with this idea. I admitedly have no real knowledge about ecosystems, but it seems to me that these bots would be only an energy sink. They would not contribute anything back to the ecosystem on which they prey. By comparison, the organisms being preyed upon, I would think, effect the ecosystem in multiple intricate ways. One important effect, it seems, is contributing energy back to the system, through the nitrogen cycle or what-have-you. I think that in order to be truely green, our energy supply must ultimately perturb the environment as little as possible. Draining energy without giving it back (widespread use of EcoBots, and you know it very well could be) or adding energy (greenhouse gasses from petroleum) without effectively removing it, in my opinion, are the same thing.

Posted by: Brian Rowe on 17 Sep 04



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