A remotely-guided rat, popularly called a ratbot or robo-rat, is a rat with electrodes implanted in the medial forebrain bundle (MFB) and sensorimotor cortex of its brain. They were developed in 2002 by Sanjiv Talwar and John Chapin at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. The rats wear a small electronics backpack containing a radio receiver and electrical stimulator. The rat receives remote stimulation in the sensorimotor cortex via its backpack that causes the rat to feel a sensation in its left or right whiskers, and stimulation in the MFB that is interpreted as a reward or pleasure.
After a period of training and conditioning using MFB stimulation as a reward, the rats can be remotely directed to move left, right, and forward in response to whisker stimulation signals. It is possible to roughly guide the animal along an obstacle course, jumping small gaps and scaling obstacles.
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Currently, robo-rats are primarily being trained to detect explosives in areas where humans and existing robots cannot efficiently search, such as crowds and cargo ships. Other possible uses of the robo-rat include search and rescue operations following a natural disaster, military reconnaissance and landmine detection. A camera, transmitter, and GPS receiver that mount on rat backpacks have been designed to facilitate these purposes. However, it has been suggested that by interpreting biological signals directly from the brain of the rat, additional information could be obtained without the use of external equipment. This could be used, for example, to detect chemical and biological toxins in the air via the rat's own sense of smell.
Additionally, these rats have further applications in pure science. It serves as a new experimental model for behavioral studies in psychology. MFB stimulation is a valuable tool in behavioral research, but traditional research using MFB stimulation has required that test animals be confined within an experimental chamber. This difficulty is avoided because the robo-rat can be guided wirelessly.
Principal funding for the development of the robo-rat has come from DARPA.
Concerns have been raised by animal rights groups about the use of animals in this context, particularly due to a concern about the removal of autonomy from an independent creature. For example, a spokesman of the Dr Hadwen Trust, a group funding alternatives to animal research in medicine, has said that the experiments are an "appalling example of how the human species instrumentalizes other species."
Researchers tend to liken the training mechanism of the robo-rat to standard operant conditioning techniques. Talwar himself has acknowledged the ethical issues apparent in the development of the robo-rat, but points out that the research meets standards for animal treatment laid down by the National Institute of Health. Moreover, the researchers emphasize that the animals are trained, not coerced, into particular behaviors. Because the rats are encouraged to act via the reward of pleasure, not muscularly compelled to behave in a particular manner, their behavior under MFB stimulation is likened to a carrot-and-stick model of encouraged behavior versus a system of mind control. It seems unlikely that the rats could be persuaded to knowingly risk their lives even with this stimulation. "Our animals were completely happy and treated well," Talwar stated.
The technology is reminiscent of experiments performed in 1965 by Dr Jose Delgado, a controversial scientist who was able to pacify a charging bull via electrodes fitted in its brain. He was also said to control cats and monkeys like "electronic toys." Extension of the current work to higher animals is unlikely to occur, simply for ethical reasons.