The Problems Posed By HI-MEMS Technology
The US Military has a history of being involved in controversial animal experimentation but this latest project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pushing the boundaries even more. The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (HI-MEMS) program, also called the Cybug Program, aims to encourage the development of cyborg insects, i.e. using nano technology combined with the bodies of living insects, which can be controlled by humans. These hybrid insects, or cybugs as they are known, are designated to be used for superior reconnaissance drones and the advancement of military weapons. Apparently, the goal of DARPA is to design a reconnaissance cybug which can be manoeuvred to a range from five feet from its target, and transmit information from there about its environment. However many details of this project are still shrouded in secrecy.
The idea at present is that cybugs could be successfully engineered by placing a small bio-electromechanical interface, for example a microchip, into a larva. The purpose behind this early-stage implantation is to exploit the natural healing process which occurs in the insect developmental stages, which in theory should improve the stability and robustness of the cybug system. Theoretically, as the larva goes through metamorphosis and reorganises its nervous system, it should integrate itself into the circuit in such a fashion that will allow humans to transmit signals to the chip and control the behaviour of the insect. It has to be said that entomologists, in the majority, are sceptical about the chances for success of this program, and it also raises some serious ethical questions, regarding exploiting and experimenting on insects in this way.
This HI-MEMS program is not the first experiment by DARPA into cyborg development. They announced their cyborg shark project at the 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. Additionally, an earlier project with wasps failed, when the insects flew away to feed and mate.
With so many rapid advances in technology these days, particularly in electronics and nanotechnology, it seems ludicrous as well as unethical for the US government to spend millions of dollars in trying to generate insect-robot hybrids to fulfil functions which we could now achieve through technology alone.
Picture courtesy of www.wired.com