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What's It Like To Be A Rat? This New Experiment May Let Us Know

New research is allowing humans and rats to swap perspectives, at least virtually.

When it comes to animal testing, scientists often use rats. The animals are relatively small, can generally be compelled to go where you want them to with food, and don’t require a lengthy ethics’ board permissions process. All well and good for the scientists, but the rats are definitely getting the moldy end of the cheese. Until now.

Instead of forcing rats through annoying mazes, researchers at the University of Barcelona and University College London are using the much-maligned creatures to experiment with new beaming technology. And this means that a bunch of lucky rats out there have experienced virtual reality before most of us humans.

You Mean Beaming Like in Star Trek?

Suffice it to say, nobody is putting rats into a transporter in Barcelona and then rematerializing them in a lab in the U.K. Instead, researchers are using a combination of immersive virtual reality technology (IVR) and teleoperation (TO) to allow both a rat and a human being in one location to feel as though they are moving around elsewhere. IVR gives a subject (human or animal) the illusion that they are experiencing and interacting with actual, physical events. TO systems use robots in one location to embody the actions and movements of a subject in a geographically different IVR environment.

In short: “Whether you’re across the room or across an ocean, you [and the rat] are manipulating a robot in a different location,” says researcher Mandayam A. Srinivasan, who co-authored a recent study in the journal Plos One called “Beaming into the Rat World: Enabling Real-Time Interaction Between Rat and Human, Each at Their Own Scale.”

The Experiment

Here’s how it works:

Tracking technology follows the movements of a rat in a box at an animal care facility outside Barcelona. Twelve kilometers away at the Mundet Campus of the University of Barcelona, an avatar representing the rat appears in a virtual reality cave. The rat’s avatar looks like a life-sized human being, and whatever the rat does, the human avatar does. If the rat scampers to the left, the human avatar moves to the left. If the rat sniffs at a suspicious object, the human avatar will too.

At the same time, a flesh and blood human being stands in the virtual reality cave, wearing a head-mounted display. The display allows the human to see and interact with the rat-controlled (but human-looking) avatar. In turn, the human’s movements are transmitted to a rat-sized robot in the animal care facility. The robot looks a little like a hockey puck. The scientists considered fashioning a rat look-alike, but for a faux rat robot to demonstrably affect the live rat’s behavior, it would need to have a rat smell and “who knows what other [sensory] cues,” says Dr. Srinivasan.

In the end, the hockey-puck robot served its purpose: The researchers succeeded in beaming a human into the world of a rat and a rat into the world of a human.

This is so Weird! What’s the Point?

“Our main purpose was to show the technological possibilities of interacting with the animal world,” says Dr. Srinivasan. In the trials, the humans in the IVR cave were able to manipulate the robot in a way that compelled the rat to move toward pictures on the walls of its box. But the experiment also told scientists something about human behavior. In one trial, the human subjects knew that the human-shaped avatar they were seeing was controlled by a rat. In a second trial, they believed the human-shaped avatar they saw was controlled by another human.

One might think that the humans who identified the avatar as a rat would keep their distance. Sure, said rat isn’t real. And yes, it’s 12 kilometers away. But wouldn’t there be some kind of visceral feeling of disgust or at least a sense of apprehension in knowing that the human cartoon was actually a furry creature with sharp teeth and beady eyes?

In fact, the humans who knew the avatar was a rat came closer to it than those who thought they were interacting with another human. The study isn’t conclusive about the reason for this, but it suggests that the “rules of proxemics” could be responsible. Humans understand that it’s not socially acceptable to invade a stranger’s personal space. For all of the old-school grandmas out there, be heartened to know that the rules of decorum are alive and well. And even trump the grossness of hanging out with a rat.

Dr. Srinivasan says this research could pave the way for more sophisticated beaming interactions between humans and animals, like monkeys or even dogs. He hopes animal behavioral scientists might one day be able to learn something about the animal’s perspective: what the rat or a dog “thinks” is happening in a virtual reality environment.

He also says this type of beaming has practical applications in medicine among other fields. IVR and OT technology could help paralyzed individuals control prosthetic limbs. And Dr. Srinivasan has already built a system whereby human movement directly affects the moment of a robot at the micron scale—one thousandth of a millimeter. “Eventually, we’ll be able to do it on a nanoscale,” he says. One day, we could even see doctors manipulating nanorobots inside their patients.

But there’s a darker side to these experiments, which we pay less attention to when our test subjects are rats. Dr. Srinivasan says researchers have already “remote controlled” animals from 600 miles away by implanting electrodes into their brains. “Just as I say this, I cringe a little bit,” he says. “And by the way, I’m a vegetarian.” He says we need to consider the ethical questions of what we’re doing to these animals. And, perhaps, how Borg-style mind control could one day affect us.

Still, how cool would it be to look through a microscope and be able to touch and feel what the microscopic organisms that you’re looking at? Dr. Srinivasan is working on it now.

[Rat Image: Flickr user Peter Kemmer]

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