As we all know, when you combine fish, alcohol, and robots, science happens. At the Polytechnic Institute of New York (NYU-Poly), researchers have been finding out how fish interact with robots, and in a new phase of their experiments, they were able to make robotic fish terrifying enough to trigger the predator-evading behavior of zebrafish.
We covered the previous phase of these experiments, in which Maurizio Porfiri, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NYU-Poly, Simone Macrì of the Italian Institute of Health, and biology student Chiara Spinello from Sapienza University of Rome made robotic zebrafish that real fish socialized with, and then dosed them with alcohol to get the party started. In an article in the open-access journal PLOS One, Porfiri and Macrì are at it again, using a robotic version of the Indian leaf fish, a predator species. The zebrafish displayed avoidance reactions to the predator, though it seems logical that fish might just be scared of robots.
We face the obstacle of the uncanny valley in making robots humanlike, so maybe there’s an uncanny undersea trench for fish. Simulating the Indian leaf fish isn’t as simple as getting the shape and coloration correct — the robot has to share the fish’s unique movements. Even when the appearance of the robot was varied, zebrafish avoided it when it matched the predator’s tail beat frequency, and were less likely to flee when it looked like an Indian leaf fish but the tail was not active.
The other part of the experiment saw the scientists administering alcohol to the zebrafish to inhibit anxiety responses. Different amounts of ethanol altered the zebrafish’s responses to the robotic predator or a simulated heron attack, with the highest level making them less likely to flee the robotic predator and slow to dive for cover from the bird.
This research has a great deal of value to scientists who want to perfect experiments that involve animal subjects. The article speculated that zebrafish could replace mammals like lab mice in emotion and anxiety-related experiments, and robots could play a major role too. It’s very hard to perform repeatable, predictable experiments to learn about animal behavior when you have to use other live animals as the stimulus every time. “The possibility to employ robots as independent variables substantially increases the controllability of experimental conditions, thus potentially favoring the reproducibility of experimental findings,” the report said. Once again, robots are taking jobs away from living things, but maybe that’s a good thing for everyone involved.
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