Animal Cyborg is a term used to describe an animal whose physical or mental form has been augmented with a piece of technology for the purposes of research, control, experimentation, or rehabilitation.
Animal Cyborgs are a promising area of study for several reasons. First off, one of the biggest hurdles in the development of human cyborgs is the restrictions on human testing. For example, it is ethically permissible to completely control the movements of a fly or beetle, which allows us to understand how nervous systems can be synthesized with circuitry to advance fields such as bionics. Animals have also evolved some capabilities that defy our most advanced technologies. The flight systems of a fly or hummingbird far outmatches even our most deft aircrafts. By building off of these advanced organisms we avoid having to start from scratch and can instead focus on novel combinations of animals' natural abilities and our technological augmentations. Animal cyborgs can also offer glimpses into non-human intelligences. Intelligence is a notoriously anthropocentric concept, and is often used as the elastic category by which we differentiate ourselves from mere "animals".
Animal cyborgs allow us to understand and appreciate animals in new ways. For example, by embedding salmon with tracking devices we have started to appreciate the strange intelligence of this species that allows it to travel thousands of miles and return to the exact stream it spawned in. What would we learn about non-human intelligences from giving a bonobo a voicebox? Just as advances in exploration and navigation opened up our horizons of cultures, advances in informatic technologies could be the key for understanding new horizons of intelligence and culture in the many species that surround us.
Animal Cyborgs for Therapy
One of the problems with therapy animals is that they require care, feeding and training. They also require sleep and animal handlers. However, they provide an inordinate amount of therapy and care for the elderly and others who are otherwise prevented from living normal, everyday lives. One might say that therapy animals are an essential part of stimulating the minds of those who are bedridden.
In Japan, a stuffed robot seal was created to solve these concerns for patients in retirement homes and patient care facilities. The robot was a baby harp seal named Paro. With "a plush coat of antibacterial fur", Paro became one of the pioneers among "socially interactive robots", and went on to live happily alongside "millions of elderly adults".
Why was Paro so successful at providing care to the elderly? One possibility might be that the robot had a friendly shape that was both soft and reactive to the touch. And, unlike human-shaped robots, there was no possibility of an uncanny valley. The main benefit of the robot is that it provided a sense of companionship and emotional response in a traditionally sterile environment. Unlike a flesh and blood therapy animal, Paro didn't require an animal handler, and its presence was not limited to visiting hours. It did not need to be fed or cleaned up after. In essence, it provided all of the elements of care that a therapy animal provided without the overhead costs. All of these elements combined to make Paro a successful and socially useful robot.
- Tergesen, Anne and Miho Inada. It's Not a Stuffed Animal, It's a $6,000 Medical Device Wall Street Journal Online. Published June 24, 2010, Accessed May 15, 2011.