This week, Questionist asks and answers the question, “What have scientists been up to lately that should scare the bejeezus out of us?” On Monday we covered in-vitro gametogenesis, and on Tuesday it was robotic bees. After today we still have two to go. Sleep tight!
In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein, which was said to have been inspired by conversations about Italian physician/physicist/biologist Luigi Galvani. Way back in 1780, Galvani discovered that he could get the muscles of a dead frog’s legs to twitch when struck by an electrical spark. This gave birth to “galvanism,” a scientific belief that electricity could revive dead tissue – and, potentially, restore life – and it would give life to the main concept of her book: bringing a “monster” to life.
Fast forward to today, when the manipulation of “biotic” material has been paired up with the technological advancements of our time, bringing forth a new, emerging science called necrobotics. Simply put, necrobotics is the science of connecting dead organisms (ie. animal corpses) to robotic components – and, of course, artificial intelligence.
We’ll stop burying the lede: scientists have figured out how to get a dead spider to do their bidding. In a study published in Advanced Science, researchers describe converting dead wolf spiders into controllable “grippers” that can be used to grasp a ball, manipulate wires, and move a block of polyurethane foam, among other tasks. The robo-spider could even lift an object up to 1.3 times its own body weight.
Spiders (when they are not dead) move their legs via hydraulic pressure, by adjusting blood pressure on a limb-by-limb basis. This action is triggered through an internal valve in the prosoma chamber, sending inner body fluid into their legs and making them extend. Rice University researchers replicated this by inserting a needle into the prosoma chamber, and sealing the edges with—of course—superglue. They squeezed a tiny puff of air through the syringe and, voila, they activated the spider’s legs in less than one second.
Why spiders? Well, by nature’s design, they have complex anatomical structures, an almost limitless range of movements, and … well, there is no shortage of spiders out there. Dead spiders are easy to manipulate, they can navigate through narrow spaces and climb rough terrain, and when they wear out after a few hundred reps, they’re even biodegradable! This is all in contrast to robots, which, while also complex and programmable, are also expensive to manufacture.
Since spiders are so good at maneuvering slippery slopes, we now might ask the age-old question: just because we can do it, should we? Maybe scientists might next suggest that spider-leg wear and tear could be solved by just keeping the spider alive, and therefore keeping its bodily fluids fully functioning and flowing. Then they could work harder and longer, and become slaves to our human demands. (We are trying very hard not to invoke “Mad-Eye” Moody here.) Or what if scientists decide to try to install these mechanical shunts into other animals? You know, rats, or wolves, or maybe certain biped mammals with opposable thumbs and large brains – have we told you lately how magnificent your neural control center is?
Long since in the public domain, Frankenstein still sells 40,000 copies a year. It is an undeniable classic, and required reading in classrooms around the world. Filmmakers and writers continue to use her book’s themes as a framework for their “man + science + biotic material = MONSTER” storylines.
Maybe she was onto something.
Photo illustration: Raphaël Poupon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia Commons / Questionist