PETA issued a letter calling for the relief of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. The tradition of predicting long winters involves a groundhog seeing its shadow, but PETA says it’s time to get with the times. The animal rights group suggested a robotic replacement.
According to PETA’s letter to Bill Deeley, president of The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, groundhogs spend much of their life as a prey species avoiding humans. “Being in close proximity to the public causes these animals great stress,” the letter said. “Using technologically advanced electromechanical devices such as animatronics instead of live animals is more popular than ever.”
The letter continues, suggesting that using an “AI Phil” would renew interest in the Groundhog Day tradition. It then went on to warn that the demographics of youth and their use of smartphones already points to the possible end of the tradition as we know it. Regardless of whether the idea takes off, it could happen, thanks to advancements in animal-inspired robotics and artificial intelligence.
Finally, A Purpose for Mosquitoes
“How do animals without much brain behave intelligently?” asked Dr. John Long, Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. “In the case of mosquitoes, they can track down mammals with a simple system of sensors connected to a simple nervous system that creates a continuous turning signal for the wings.”
This system of sensors in mosquitoes is in their antennae, Dr. Long said. The sensors can detect carbon dioxide (CO2), which we exhale all day, and they tell the mosquito to head towards the source. As it flies and continually gains and loses the signal of carbon dioxide, the mosquito flies in an outward spiraling pattern until it literally hits a mammal.
This “sensor-guided movement,” as he put it, was the key to improving artificial intelligence years ago. A professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Rodney Brooks came upon the idea in the late 1980s.
“Once you understand the intelligent behavior of insects, you can use the simple sense-and-act rule to program a robot,” Dr. Long said. “And that was Brooks’ flash of brilliance.”
However, Brooks didn’t know for sure that a robot would take to the behavior as well as a live animal, so he and six of his students put it to the test by building a six-legged robot named Genghis.
Genghis the Tracker
“Like a mosquito, Genghis had on-board sensors to detect mammals, but while we talked about mosquitoes sensing CO2, Brooks focused on another insect sense—heat detection,” Dr. Long said. “So Brooks and his team mounted six pyroelectric, heat-detecting sensors on the front of Genghis. Genghis used these sensors to follow warm mammals around the lab—and it worked beautifully.”
Not only was Genghis one of the first intelligently-behaving mobile robots, but it also did so without the previous model of robot behavior. That model involved a slow, laborious, “sense-plan-act” mindset of constantly analyzing changes in its environment.
“Brooks moved robotics from the classic sense-plan-act paradigm—what we call model-based robotics—to what is now called behavior-based robotics,” Dr. Long said. “Behavior-based robotics might not seem like quite such a big deal now, but in 1988, when Genghis was built, it was a real breakthrough in the world of robotics.”
And what became of Professor Brooks?
“Brooks and his students went on to use his behavior-based robotics to create the first consumer robot to have widespread success—Roomba,” Dr. Long said.
Time will tell if PETA’s robotic replacement for Punxsutawney Phil gains traction. If it does, it will owe at least a fraction of its behavior to Genghis, Professor Rodney Brooks, and the mosquito population.
Dr. John Long contributed to this article. Dr. Long is a Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. He also serves as the Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he helped found in 2003. Professor Long received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Duke University.