Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Animal Invention

This is technology.

Pencil rain.
And this is technology.

Killing birds.  For science.
But not this, right?

Popcorn is high-tech.
Technology usually means circuit boards, transistors, and anti-septic static-proofed rooms full of lab-coated factory workers.  Just about as far away from the smelly world of nature as you can get.

But this dichotomy looses a lot of its steam when you consider all the crazy ways humanity has exploted the power of the natural world for fun and profit.  For most of human history the greatest technological advances came from the the intertwining growth of plants, animals, people, organizations and objects.  Agriculturalists transformed Corn (America's Favorite Grain) from a plant which produced just a few inch-long nubbins to a stalk bursting with gigantic cobs overloaded with nutritious kernels.  Horses were tethered to chariots, to saddles, to ploughs, to snake-poison-IVs to create anti-venom.  Computers, airplanes and cars--just a footnote.  In this post, I'm going to browse over some of the stranger ways humanity has used animals to their advantage.

The drug-sniffing dog is an obvious example.  But maybe because the dog is so domestic, the whole idea of dogs being trained to sniff out contraband doesn't strike us as particularly alien.  What is weird is that we can now use bees to do the same thing.

Drug sniffing bees--ready to use.
Here's how it works.  Bees are exposed to a target scent in a sugar solution.  When they encounter that smell again, they waggle their proboscises to get at the expected sugar.  This movement is then picked up by a digital camera.  Bees go in a box.  Bees waggle their noses when they smell their target smell.  Camera notices this and sends a signal to the operator.  And now to you can tote around a portable buzzing box of bees to seek out drugs and explosives--instead of Fido.  (You can also use bees to sniff cancer, pregnancy, TB and land mines.)  This could make the whole airport security thing just that much more nerve-wracking.

What is more charming--if a bit more disturbing--is the United State's Navy Marine Mammal Program, a corps of highly-trained dolphins and sea lions who help out in nautical warfare.  These aquatic friends are actually used for a wide variety of tasks.  Dolphins are trained to search out sea mines and identify them so they can be targeted by minesweepers, among other things.  Sea lions have been used to hand-cuff location devices to the limbs of under-water intruders. Tons more animals have been experimented with, including killer whales, pilot whales, belugas  and seals.  And the US is not the only military using marine mammals.  The Ukrainian military has a group of attack dolphins which recently fell into the hands of the Russians.

So much for animals protecting us in wartime.  I know what you're thinking:  How can animals protect us in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse?

They might very well be able to--in future.  Deadly radiation is invisible, lasts for thousands of years, and kills after a matter of days.  Nuclear waste repositories try to set up signs which will warn humans of the deadly nature of radiation that will last for at least ten thousand years.  This is much harder than it seems.  Ten thousand years ago, we hadn't even domesticated cattle yet.  People did not farm.  Writing was some kind of pie-in-the-sky future tech.  The wheel was science fiction.   How will we hope to communicate with humans ten thousand years on?

We can't write stuff down, because we're pretty sure no one will be able to speak any contemporary language in 10,000 years.  (Note to any future archeologists reading this in the distant future:  I guess I was wrong?)  Symbols might seem a better bet, but the meaning of symbols can change drastically over time.  You can try to show a story to try to warn future people against walking through a sea of radioactivity--say a series of pictures depicting a person entering the area and then dying.  But the problem of misinterpretation remains:  what if the folks read the story backwards, and think that the area can make the dead come back to life?

Enter the Raycat.  Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea to genetically engineer cats to change colors in the presence of radiation.  To get people to remember to be afraid when cats change color, they then proposed embedding the warning in myths, songs, and stories.  So no more black cats as portents of doom--what you really have to be worried about is when the cats change colors.  Hopefully these legends will be sticky enough to remain in the minds of our ancestors for as long as it takes for the radioactive waste to decay into something safe.

Although the Raycat has not yet been implemented, the work of myth-making has already begun.  99% Invisible (the great podcast by Roman Mars) commissioned musician Emperor X to compose a catchy song warning future humans that when cats change color, it's time to run the other way.  Sing it to your kids.  Sing it to your friends.  And remember:  turn tail when the cats change color.

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