It's been called 'roborat' and 'ratbot', although the rat is a living being, merely stripped of its own free will by a brain implant right out of a science fiction movie.

Neuroscientist John Chapin and his colleagues recently developed a brain implant that lets them make rats turn left or right or move forward according to keystrokes from a laptop up to 500 meters away. It includes electrodes in three parts of the brain: one in the medial forebrain bundle (MFB), which is associated with feelings of pleasure, and one each in the left and right somatosensory cortices, in the areas that sense the rat's whiskers.

Rewarding correct actions with short bursts of MFB-induced pleasure, the rats were trained to turn left or right when the brain cells representing their whiskers were stimulated. Electrically tickling the MFB was a command to move forward.

Later, the rats were brought to the Southwest Research Institute at San Antonio, Texas, where the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) evaluates robots. They performed well in various tests troublesome to real robots, including going over and through crumbled blocks of concrete, climbing a tree and walking along a railroad track. They were also tested for distractability by people, loud noises, and cheese. However, with enough MFB stimulation, the rats just didn't care.

"These guys are having too much fun to eat anything — not even chocolate, and rats are chocoholics," says Chapin.

I chose the node title before reading this, but apparently lead researcher Sanjiv Talwar of the State University of New York insists that the animal cannot be dubbed a "remote-controlled rat", saying that the rat was not forced to do anything, as the technique works by stimulating the reward centre of the brain.

That's a laugh. Rats don't naturally have wires in their heads. With sufficient stimulation and training, the animal could be made to do anything the controller wants. Previous wireheading experiments have shown that if rats have access to levers that will, when pressed, give them jolts of electricity to the reward centre, they may continue doing so until they die, just like rats with access to cocaine self-administration. Free will is entirely absent. Nevertheless, it is probably highly enjoyable to the cyborg-rat.

Possible uses for animals with similar brain implants include searching for survivors in disaster areas, espionage and walking them into mine fields.

The US Department of Defense also funds research that aims to remotely control sharks. (Cool!)

See also: Operation Acoustic Kitty


This just in. Unconfirmed reports from Blockstackers Intergalactic state that all noders will be equipped with these implants once they are available to humans (or even monkeys). Then, upvotes and C!'s will give noders the most intense pleasure imaginable. Everything2 is expected to become the sole pastime of all humanity within weeks after this. Resistance will be futile.

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