The Trouble with Insect Cyborgs
The use of animals by the military is not new, but it seems to be forever evolving into new areas. This article outlines recent moves by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop insect cyborgs – fusing insect bodies with hardware that facilitates their control by humans for military purposes. The paper acts as an overview of insect cyborg developments, as well as a deconstruction of the ways in which humans justify the use and killing of insects.
Technology is advancing all the time, and the United States military is often at the forefront of developing ways to apply emerging technologies to serve military purposes. Animals have been used in military testing of various technologies for many years. In recent years, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been taking this approach a step further by developing “insect cyborg” technology. This study gives an overview of these new developments at DARPA, and states that this process is facilitated by our cultural conception of insects as already being “robotic” and “machine-like.” The author says that, “the view of insects as robots facilitates a seemingly stable conception of insect anatomy and behavior and is conducive to the insertion of behavior-modifying technologies into their bodies.” We already think of insects as robots, and so making them further robotic is not culturally controversial. However, “it is not without its problems and shortcomings. Insects are not robots, and so any effort to treat them as if they are robots will inevitably produce tensions, gaps, and inconsistencies in our interactions with, and conceptions of, these enduringly fascinating animals.”
As evidence of these “tensions, gaps, and inconsistencies,” the study points to DARPA precedents, such as a the “ultimate failure of a $3 million project to train honeybees to find land mines.” In this case the author says that, “the bees proved more difficult to train than had been anticipated,” and more advanced hardware would have to be added in order to manipulate the insects’ perception to “coerce it into action.” Despite this, DARPA has proceeded with further expensive tests, and often towards ends that are “not at all clear.” These experimental applications and procedures are sometimes “successful” and other times not, but the author notes one similarity across all of the accounts: “the animal itself virtually disappears from accounts of insect cyborg experiments, along with any avenues for empathy that might interfere with DARPA’s own forms of interference, or ‘thrust.'” The author points out that this isn’t surprising, “since in Western societies negligible value is attached to the lives of insects in general, and few penalties exist for capturing, torturing, or killing insects.”
The study ends with parallels drawn between emerging Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle (UAV) (or “drone”) technology and how these new experiments are seeking to turn living beings into drones. “DARPA’s insects — being treated as if they are machines, having their muscles and nervous systems fused with computer hardware and software, and indeed having their locomotion controlled by remote human pilots — also constitute what can be regarded as UAVs,” says the author. However, it is noted that these insects are never referred to as UAVs, but rather as “a kind of bridge toward the improvement of micro and nano air vehicles.” This treatment of insects as nothing but a means to an end is, coming full circle, related quite simply to their cultural positioning as robotic beings. “The central challenge of human-insect relations will remain, as it has since at least the late 17th century, to see the animal in the insect, and to resist the temptation, despite its utility, to define it simply as a machine.”
This paper examines recent developments in the construction of insect cyborgs by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, as part of its Hybrid Insect Microelectromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) project. It takes a sociological approach in order to account for the processes involved in the creation of insect cyborgs, arguing that such creatures should be seen as the outcome of social, as well as technological, conditions. The paper critically reflects on the ethical implications of the HI-MEMS project and discusses the philosophical repercussions of treating insects as if they are machines.