A Futuristic Nightmare That Just Might Come True
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects. It sounds like a nightmare scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science fiction, but it could be a reality, if a current Pentagon project comes to fruition.
Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics inside them. They’re creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely controlled. One day, the U.S. military may field squadrons of winged insect/machine hybrids with on-board audio, video or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and transmit detailed data back to their handlers at U.S. military bases.
Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio weapons."
For the past 50 years, work by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — the Pentagon’s blue skies research outfit — has led to some of the most lethal weaponry in the U.S. arsenal: from Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones and stealth fighters and bombers to Tomahawk cruise missiles and Javelin portable "fire and forget" guided missiles. For the last several years, DARPA has funneled significant sums of money into a very different kind of guided missile project, its Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS) program. This project is, according to DARPA, "aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis." Put simply, the creation of cyborg insects: part bug, part bot.
Bugs, Bots, Borgs and Bio-Weapons
This past August, at DARPA’s annual symposium — DARPATech — HI-MEMS program manager Amit Lal, an associate professor on leave from Cornell University, explained that his project aims to transform "insects into unmanned air-vehicles." He described the research this way: "[T]he HI-MEMS program seeks to grow MEMS and electronics inside the insect pupae. The new tissue forms around the insertions, making the bio-electronic interface long-lasting and reliable." In other words, micro-electronics are inserted at the pupal stage of metamorphosis so that they can be integrated into the insects’ bodies as they develop, creating living robots that can be remotely controlled after the insect emerges from its cocoon.
According to the latest reports, work on this project is progressing at a rapid pace. In a recent phone interview, DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker said, "We’re focused on determining what the best kinds of MEMS systems are; what the best MEMS system would be for embedding; what the best time is for embedding."
This month, Rob Coppinger, writing for the aerospace trade publication Flight International, reported on new advances announced at the "1st US-Asian Assessment and Demonstration of Micro-Aerial and Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technology" — a Pentagon-sponsored conference. "In the latest work," he noted, "a Manduca moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had a MEMS component added where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval stage." But, as he pointed out, Robert Michelson, a principal research engineer, emeritus at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, laid out "on behalf of DARPA" some of the obstacles that remain. Among them were short insect life-spans and the current inability to create these cyborgs outside specialized labs.
DARPA’s professed long-term goal for the HI-MEMS program is the creation of "insect cyborgs" capable of carrying "one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay back information gathered from the target destination" — in other words, the creation of military micro-surveillance systems.
In a recent email interview, Michelson — who has previously worked on numerous military projects, including DARPA’s "effort to develop an ‘Entomopter’ (mechanical insect-like multimode aerial robot)" — described the types of sensor packages envisioned, but only in a minimalist fashion, as a "[w]ide array of active and passive devices." However in "Insect Cyborgs: A New Frontier in Flight Control Systems," a 2007 article in the academic journal Proceedings of SPIE, Cornell researchers noted that cyborg insects could be used as "autonomous surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles" with on-board "[s]ensory systems such as video and chemical."
Surveillance applications, however, may only be the beginning. Last year, Jonathan Richards, reporting for The Times, raised the specter of the weaponization of cyborg insects in the not-too-distant future. As he pointed out, Rodney Brooks, the director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indicated that the Pentagon is striving toward a major expansion in the use of non-traditional air power — like unmanned aerial vehicles and cyborg insects — in the years ahead. "There’s no doubt their things will become weaponized," he explained, "so the question [is]: should they [be] given targeting authority?" Brooks went on to assert, according to The Times, that it might be time to consider rewriting international law to take the future weaponization of such "devices" into account.
But how would one weaponize a cyborg insect? On this subject, Robert Michelson was blunt: "Bio weapons."
Michelson wouldn’t elaborate further, but any program using bio-weapons would immediately raise major legal and ethical questions. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention outlawed the manufacture and possession of bio-weapons, of "[m]icrobial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin… that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes" and of "[w]eapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." In fact, not only did President George W. Bush claim that Iraq’s supposed production and possession of biological weapons was a justification for an invasion of that nation, but he had previously stated, "All civilized nations reject as intolerable the use of disease and biological weapons as instruments of war and terror."
Reached for comment, however, DARPA’s Jan Walker insisted that her agency’s focus was only on "fundamental research" when it came to cyborg insects. Although the focus of her agency is, in fact, distinctly on the future — the technology of tomorrow — she refused to look down the road when it came to weaponizing insect cyborgs or arming them with bio-weapons. "I can’t speculate on the future," was all she would say.
Michelson is perfectly willing to look into future, especially on matters of cyborg insect surveillance, but on the horizon for him are technical issues when it comes to the military use of bug bots. "Surveillance goes on anyway by other means," he explained, "so a new method is not the issue. If there are ethical or legal issues, they are ones of ‘surveillance,’ not of the ‘surveillance platform.’"
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights and civil liberties group, sees that same future in a different light. Cyborg insects, he says, are an order of magnitude away from today’s more standard surveillance technologies like closed circuit television. "CCTV is mostly deployed in public and in privately owned public spaces. An insect could easily fly into your garden or sit outside your bedroom window," he explained. "To make matters worse, you’d have no idea these devices were there. A CCTV camera is usually an easily recognizable device. Robotic surveillance insects might be harder to spot. And having to spot them wouldn’t necessarily be good for our mental health."
Does Michelson see any ethical or legal dilemmas resulting from the future use of weaponized cyborg insects? "No, not unless they could breed new cyborg insects, which is not possible," he explained. "Genetic engineering will be the ethical and legal battleground, not cybernetics."
Battle Beetles and Hawkish Hawkmoths
Weaponized or not, moths are hardly the only cyborg insects that may fly, creep, or crawl into the military’s future arsenal. Scientists from Arizona State University and elsewhere, working under a grant from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, "are rearing beetle species at various oxygen levels to attempt to produce beetles with greater-than-normal size and payload capacity." Earlier this year, some of the same scientists published an article on their DARPA-funded research titled "A Cyborg Beetle: Insect Flight Control Through an Implantable, Tetherless Microsystem." They explained that, by implanting "multiple inserted neural and muscular stimulators, a visual stimulator, a polyimide assembly and a microcontroller" in a 2 centimeter long, 1-2 gram green June beetle, they were "capable of modulating [the insect’s] flight starts, stops, throttle/lift, and turning." They could, that is, drive an actual beetle. However, unlike the June bug you might find on a porch screen or in a garden, these sported on-board electronics powered by cochlear implant batteries.
DARPA-funded HI-MEMS research has also been undertaken at other institutions across the country and around the world. For example, in 2006, researchers at Cornell, in conjunction with scientists at Pennsylvania State University and the Universidad de Valparaiso, Chile, received an $8.4 million DARPA grant for work on "Insect Cyborg Sentinels." According to a recent article in New Scientist, a team led by one of the primary investigators on that grant, David Stern, screened a series of video clips at a recent conference in Tucson, Arizona demonstrating their ability to control tethered tobacco hawkmoths through "flexible plastic probes" implanted during the pupal stage. Simply stated, the researchers were able to remotely control the moths-on-a-leash, manipulating the cyborg creatures’ wing speed and direction.
Cyborg insects are only the latest additions to the U.S. military’s menagerie. As defense tech-expert Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog has reported, DARPA projects have equipped rats with electronic equipment and remotely controlled sharks, while the military has utilized all sorts of animals, from bomb-detecting honeybees and "chickens used as early-warning sensors for chemical attacks" to guard dogs and dolphins trained to hunt mines. Additionally, he notes, the DoD’s emphasis on the natural world has led to robots that resemble dogs, monkeys that control robotic limbs with their minds, and numerous other projects inspired by nature.
But whatever other creatures they favor, insects never seem far from the Pentagon’s dreams of the future. In fact, Shachtman reported earlier this year that "Air Force scientists are looking for robotic bombs that look — and act — like swarms of bugs and birds." He went on to quote Colonel Kirk Kloeppel, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s munitions directorate, who announced the Lab’s interest in "bio-inspired munitions," in "small, autonomous" machines that would "provide close-in [surveillance] information, in addition to killing intended targets."
This month, researcher Robert Wood wrote in IEEE Spectrum about what he believes was "the first flight of an insect-size robot." After almost a decade of research, Wood and his colleagues at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory are now creating small insect-like robots that will eventually be outfitted "with onboard sensors, flight controls, and batteries… to nimbly flit around obstacles and into places beyond human reach." Like cyborg insect researchers, Wood is DARPA-funded. Last year, in fact, the agency selected him as one of 24 "rising stars" for a "young faculty awards" grant.
Asked about the relative advantages of cyborg insects compared to mechanical bugs, Robert Michelson noted that "robotic insects obey without innate or external influences" and "they can be mass produced rapidly." He cautioned, however, that they are extremely limited power-wise. Insect cyborgs, on the other hand, "can harvest energy and continue missions of longer duration." However, they "may be diverted from their task by stronger influences"; must be grown to maturity and so may not be available when needed; and, of course, are mortal and run the risk of dying before they can be employed as needed.
The Future is Now
There is plenty of technical information about the HI-MEMS program available in the scientific literature. And if you make inquiries, DARPA will even direct you to some of the relevant citations. But while it’s relatively easy to learn about the optimal spots to insert a neural stimulator in a green June beetle ("behind the eye, in the flight control area of the insect brain") or an electronic implant in a tobacco hawkmoth ("the main flight powering muscles… in the dorsal-thorax"), it’s much harder to discover the likely future implications of this sci-fi sounding research.
The "final demonstration goal" — the immediate aim — of DARPA’s HI-MEMS program "is the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target located a hundred meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning system (GPS)." Right now, DARPA doesn’t know when that might happen. "We basically operate phase to phase," says Walker. "So, it kind of depends on how they do in the current phase and we’ll make decisions on future phases."
DARPA refuses to examine anything but research-oriented issues. As a result, its Pentagon-funded scientists churn out inventions with potentially dangerous, if not deadly, implications without ever fully considering — let alone seeking public or expert comment on — the future ramifications of new technologies under production.
"The people who build this equipment are always going to say that they’re just building tools, that there are legitimate uses for them, and that it isn’t their fault if the tools are abused," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eckersley. "Unfortunately, we’ve seen that governments are more than willing to play fast-and-loose with the legal bounds on surveillance. Unless and until that changes, we’d urge researchers to find other projects to work on."
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published in Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project series. His website is NickTurse.com
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse