This vision of enhanced animals with electro-mechanical controllers was imagined in a 1990 novel called Sparrowhawk, in which author Thomas Easton imagines bioengineering enlarged birds and insects to use as beasts-of-burden. In the book, reengineered birds become airliners and automobiles are made from enlarged beetles. In that dream world, these animals were harnessed with electro-mechanical controllers that multiplied their strength to accommodate their larger size. In a world with HI-MEMS, instead of genetically enlarging animals to the size of vehicles, their electro-mechanical controllers will be downsized to an insect's normal dimensions with MEMS.
"I was invited to give a talk at the kickoff meeting for Darpa's HI-MEMS research program," said Easton, also a professor at Thomas College. "Program director Amit Lal said he had read my novel, in which I posited implanting computer chips in genetically engineered insects and other animals."
Easton ended up putting his presentation online, instead of delivering it to Darpa. In it, he imagines our world should Darpa's HI-MEMS program succeed. In a HI-MEMS world, cyborg bugs would patrol, gather intelligence, penetrate secret meetings, track targets, retrieve samples and more--all predicted by Easton's 1990 book. However, also founded in 1990 was the watch-dog group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, San Francisco), which has more than a little trepidation about Darpa realizing Easton's dreams of cyborg bugs conducting ubiquitous surveillance.
"Anyone who is just a little bit creative can imagine both useful and non-productive applications of remote-controlled animals--especially if ordinary people will mistake them for normal animals," said Peter Eckersley, staff technologist at the EFF. " Darpa likens remote-controlled insect to saddling horses, but the difference between a police officer using a horse and a police officer controlling one of these cyborg insects is that you can clearly see the police officer on the horse, whereas you can not easily see whether an insect is a cyborg. If people in a free society have to start worrying that any insect they see might be conducting surveillance, then that could seriously inhibit their ability to develop their character and express themselves."
Beyond surveillance, several other civilian applications of cyborg bugs were imagined by Easton--adding to the list of military applications he deems likely to come to pass if HI-MEMS is successful. One of his favorites is catching bank robbers.
"Moths are extraordinarily sensitive to sex attractants, so instead of giving bank robbers money treated with dye, they could use sex attractants instead," said Easton. "Then, a moth-based HI-MEMS could find the robber by following the scent."
Bank robbers, of course, cannot expect to have very strong privacy rights protection--they gave up those when they staged the holdup. But into whose window a remote-controlled animal is allowed to peer when searching for the robbers is not, in principle, different from remote controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of today.
"We are already facing privacy and humanitarian issues from the use of small remote-controlled helicopters for surveillance," said Eckersley. "They are widely used in search-and-rescue operations, but we need to decide how much we should trust the police and military with them."
Easton, on the other hand, suggests that Darpa should not hold back, but up the ante by enlisting genetic engineering to add receptors to a moth that attract it to "substances of interest."
"For instance, with genetic engineering Darpa could replace the sex attractant receptor on the moth antennae with receptors for other things, like explosives, drugs or toxins," said Easton.
If Darpa's track record is any indicator, then we have some breathing room before we have to start worrying whether that insect crawling on the wall is conducting unwarranted surveillance. Only a fraction of the wide-ranging programs that Darpa sponsors are successful--at least in the way they were originally imagined. Despite a few stunning successes, like the Internet, Darpa's history is littered with broken dreams.
"There are enormous engineering problems with actually realizing remote-controlled animals," said the EFF's Eckersley. "I would say the short-term odds of Darpa's project actually succeeding are very low--it's theoretically possible, but could take another 100 years to actually do it. In any case, we in society need to be thinking about what we want to use these things for."
If adversaries were able to easily kill Darpa's cyborg insect, then the program could die under its own weight, because of the expense of hand-building each one would then favor using conventional UAVs instead. In his book Sparrowhawk, Easton imagines that the insurgents are sophisticated enough to hack into the electronics grafted onto his enlarged animals, thereby turning the tool against its maker. But Easton maintains that insurgents today would not have to become hackers to foil animal-based surveillance, because there are a variety of low-tech methods that would be easier.
"Imagine a thousand moths released to search for insurgent activity--all the insurgents would have to do is build a bonfire to attract them, then use pesticides or bug-zappers to kill them," said Easton.