Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
If you’re picturing Mothra driving a pimped-out Honda through downtown Tokyo, honking at harajuku girls, you’re not entirely wrong. Researchers at the University of Tokyo let a male silk moth drive a small car to study how the insect tracks smells. They hope the results will improve technology for tasks such as detecting chemical leaks.
Silk moths are particularly adept at following the scent of pheromones—nature’s super-sexy chemical perfume—to zero in on their mates. In this experiment, researchers tethered the moth inside a small wheeled robot steered by a foam sphere rather like the track ball on your computer mouse. By walking on the ball, the moth piloted his vehicle towards a source of female pheromones.
The moth turns out to be better behind the wheel than most of the people in your driver’s ed class: he reached his goal with about 84% accuracy. When the car was programmed to veer to one side and the moth was “blindfolded” behind a piece of paper, accuracy dropped to about 54%, suggesting he relies on both sight and smell to steer.
This seems like a futuristic twist on the canary in the coal mine. If these moths can be trained to pursue the scent of toxins rather than pheromones, they could potentially save lives. Perhaps researchers could simply learn how to program the robot to mimic the moth’s natural scent-tracking abilities, without the aid of its six-legged pilot. But it’s more intriguing to imagine a space colony that keeps a terrarium full of moths to track down potentially fatal leaks in its system.
If this method proves successful in learning about the silk moth’s evolutionary gifts, what other remarkable animals might we study in similar ways? Could we have a bat or dolphin steer a robot to learn about their remarkable echolocation capabilities? What about monarch butterflies, which somehow possess enough sense of direction to journey from Canada to Mexico to breed?
I’m certainly not advocating that we start forcing animals to drive experimental cars in the name of scientific inquiry. However, it reinforces the idea that no artificial system we humans create will be as efficient as one nature has already perfected. The future of technological advancement may lie in mimicking organic processes. Hopefully the success of the moth driving school will encourage us to place more value on the natural world and preserve it, so that we may continue to learn from the master.