Robot hears by using the ear of a dead locust

Astute readers will recall the "Smellicopter" from last fall, a robot that used an amputated moth antenna to navigate toward smells.

Robot-insect hybrids seems to be a hot area, because now a team at Tel Aviv University has announced the "Ear-bot"—a robot tricked out with the ear of a dead locust, which it uses to hear.

As they explain in their press briefing here, they euthanized a locust, then quickly removed its ear and kept it alive in a small chamber mounted on the robot. This "Ear-on-a-Chip" system was able to help the robot recognize and response to hand-claps.

As with the Smellicopter, I read the scientific paper with the now-familiar combo of i) detached, monocle-adjusting appreciation for the remarkable technical achievement, mixed with ii) skin-crawling dread at our approaching future where drones and robots will be guided and animated by dead animal parts.

As the researchers note in their press release, animal sensory organs are quite efficient and have sensitivities that can beat artificial ones:

"In general, biological systems have a huge advantage over technological systems — both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of energy consumption. This initiative of Tel Aviv University researchers opens the door to sensory integrations between robots and insects — and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.

"It should be understood that biological systems expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems. They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient. For the sake of comparison, a laptop consumes about 100 watts per hour, while the human brain consumes about 20 watts a day. Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it. The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as smell, sight and touch. For example, some animals have amazing abilities to detect explosives or drugs; the creation of a robot with a biological nose could help us preserve human life and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today. Some animals know how to detect diseases. Others can sense earthquakes. The sky is the limit."