The robot dolphin that could reinvent zoos

“I thought it was real”: So says one woman who swam with the remote-controlled mammal. © IC Photo

Could robot animals be good for nature? This model might replace wild dolphins in theme parks. So why not replace zoos entirely – with robot versions of wildlife, both living and extinct?

Imagine dolphins in your local swimming pool. One reason this doesn’t happen is that dolphins need space. In the wild, they can range up to 80 miles.

Even the marine parks that make a business out of captive dolphins and other large marine mammals, such as orcas, are often criticised for being too small.

A robot, on the other hand, has no need for space. Nor does it need companionship or to be entertained.

With these differences in mind, Californian company Edge Innovations has unveiled a realistic animatronic dolphin and recently took it for a dip in a local pool, to the excitement of many of the swimmers.

The company claims that its technology could help phase out captive animals from zoos and aquariums.

For many, the more we know about zoos, the more ethically dubious they appear. The kinds of entertainment people currently expect — looking at elephants, tigers or apes in their enclosures, or at dolphins leaping through hoops — may soon go the way of bear-baiting or cockfighting.

But what if animatronic technology could allow us to watch lifelike robot dolphins do tricks without ever having to put a wild animal in captivity?

Seeing these artificial animals could help foster a sense of wonder towards real nature, their advocates say, without doing any of the harm caused by keeping captive creatures.

Soon, you could see an elephant walking around a park without having to go to a zoo — let alone to Kenya.

It should even be possible to make imaginary or extinct animals. While the laws of aerodynamics mean we probably will not have flying dragons any time soon, we could have a chimera enclosure. There are already several parks featuring robot dinosaurs.

They are not at the level of realism of Jurassic Park quite yet. Still, as the technology for mimicking animal movements moves in leaps and bounds, the velociraptors could soon be leaping and bounding, too.

For some, however, such a cinematic world, while perhaps not as cruel as bullfighting, would still be a symptom of the same problem – treating animals as entertainment.

When the Tower of London menagerie was open to the 18th-century public for the price of a cat to feed to the lions and tigers, nobody argued that it would develop people’s sympathies.

A robot version of cheap entertainment, some critics suggest, might be bloodless, but it is not guilt-free.

Many people learned to love animals from playing with their toys; but as these toys become more lifelike, and more ubiquitous, the debate continues as to whether will they bring us closer to real animals, or replace them.

So, could robot animals be good for nature?

Animal magic

Send in the robots, say some. Being able to walk beside an elephant or even a woolly mammoth will brighten people’s days and will remind them of the majesty of nature. They are not a substitute for the real thing, but a way of connecting people to them. The way we treat captive animals now has to change, and robots are an exciting and creative way of doing that.

Not so fast, say others. Mechanical animals are yet another extension of human tyranny over nature. There is a sadness to replacing captive species with robots, rather than reflecting on our need to gawk at animals in the first place. Bringing in robot versions of extinct animals, or inventing new ones, can only remind us of our failures to respect the planet’s biodiversity.

You Decide

  1. Are some animals too scary to roam the streets even in robot form? Would you welcome a Tyrannosaurus rex on your high street, for instance?
  2. Should we allow people to perform sports often thought of as cruel, such as fox hunting or bullfighting, with robots?

Activities

  1. One famous imaginary animal that could be built as a robot is the gryphon. This has the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Draw your own imaginary animal with parts from at least two other creatures.
  2. The orca Tilikum, who performed at the aquarium SeaWorld, was involved in the deaths of three humans over the course of his captivity. Imagine you are Tilikum’s lawyer, tasked with defending him from the charge of murder. Write a version of the speech you would give in his defence.

Some People Say...

“Doubtless when the swallows come in spring they operate like clocks.”

René Descartes, (1596–1650) French Philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that captivity is bad for the wellbeing of many animal species. Elephants, for example, live 39 years longer in the wild, on average. However, people still want close encounters with the Earth’s fauna. One California company has managed to make an extremely lifelike animatronic dolphin, offering this as a compromise solution. It is becoming increasingly feasible to replace captive animals with robots, or even to build fantastical creatures.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether the presence of mechanical animals will foster a genuine connection to nature or not. For some, robot animals will allow people to develop more sympathy for the natural world. For others it represents a devaluing of animals, replacing them with our own creations. Would robot animals remind us how special the natural world is, or make it seem replaceable?

Word Watch

Orcas
Orcas are related to dolphins and are often called killer whales. This is because they were seen by sailors as fearsome hunters, who would even hunt other whales.
Animatronic
A portmanteau word combining animation and electronic. A robot is animatronic when it is trying to represent a live creature.
Bear-baiting
A bloody sport where a bear was chained to a post and attacked by dogs. It was extremely popular in Britain between the 12th and 19th centuries. King Henry VIII loved bear baiting so much he had a pit built specially for it in one of his palaces.
Chimera
An ancient Greek monster with body parts from a snake, a goat and a lion. The word is now used to refer to any monstrous combination of things, and also any clearly imaginary fears.
Bullfighting
The practice of fighting bulls is banned in most European countries but is considered integral to Spanish cultural heritage.
Menagerie
A collection of animals for display. These have existed since there were people wealthy and powerful enough to collect animals.
Ubiquitous
Everywhere.

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