Rat Robot Beats on Live Rats to Make Them Depressed

A robotic rat can be used to depress live rats to make them suitable for human drug trials

2 min read
Rat Robot Beats on Live Rats to Make Them Depressed

One of the two rats in the above picture isn't really a rat. One of the two rats in the above picture is, in fact, a robot. Look closely and you can just barely figure it out. Meanwhile, the rat that isn't a robot is seriously depressed, because that's what this robot specializes in: rat depression.

I should hope that you're wondering right now just why the heck someone would design a robot that exists only to instill depression in rats, since that seems kind of terrifying, to be honest. Fortunately, there's a simple answer: We need depressed rats to be able to test drugs that treat depression. Before trying drugs out on humans, they get tested on animals, and if you think you've got a drug that can safely make depressed people less depressed, it first needs to be able to safely make depressed rats less depressed, and that requires a bunch of depressed rats.

There are already some accepted ways to make a normal rat into a depressed rat. For example, you can force it to swim for long periods, or you can put it into a box and give it electric shocks. Do these things often enough, and you'll be left with one seriously unhappy rat. However, the problem with these methods is that humans don't usually experience depression like this: With some exceptions that nobody likes to talk about, prolonged swimming and shocks aren't the cause of most depression in humans, and researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo are trying to come up with a more accurate model by causing depression in rats with other (robotic) rats.

This robot, called WR-3, is basically an attack robot. It has three modes, or "behavior generation algorithms," which include chasing, continuous attacking, and interactive attacking. Chasing means that WR-3 will attempt to maintain a minimum distance from the rat but not actually attack it. Continuous attacking is, well, continuous attacking with aggressive body motions and physical contact. Interactive attacking only attacks the rat whenever it moves at set distance, which (to me) is the most sinister mode of all.

Experiments on different groups of rats of different ages showed that the most effective means of instilling depression (measured by overall listlessness) was to constantly harass young rats, and then intermittently harass them again when they got older, and that doing this is likely a better overall model for depression than other methods. So that's good news for drug testing, and bad news for lab rats.

On a personal note, as a rat owner I have to say that I'm a little bit sorry to see robots being used in this manner. I know it's medically important, and I have some friends who would likely be dead if it wasn't for animal testing of drugs, but still, developing a robot for the express purpose of instilling depression in animals and nothing else just seems like it somehow sets a bad precedent. But I suppose as far as the rats are concerned, if it's possible to use robots to depress them without causing undue amounts of fear or pain, that's a better route to take.

"A Novel Method to Develop an Animal Model of Depression Using a Small Mobile Robot" was published online today in Advanced Robotics, and you can read the whole thing at the link below.

[ Paper ] via [ New Scientist ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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