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 could 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.

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

With this 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 happy swimmers.

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

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 the park without having to go to the zoo — let alone to Kenya.

It should even be possible to make imaginary or extinct animals. We might not have flying dragons any time soon, but we could have a chimera enclosure.

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.

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

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 remind them of the majesty of nature. They are not a substitute for the real thing but a way of connecting people to them.

Not so fast, say others. Mechanical animals are yet another version of human tyranny over nature. It is actually a sad thing to replace captive species with robots. Instead, we should be reflecting on our need to gawk at animals in the first place.

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?

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.

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

Animatronic
A portmanteau word combining animation and electronic. A robot is animatronic when it is trying to represent a live creature.
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.

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