Computer Bugs, Literally


by Tony Kontzer

A message to all you technologists out there who feel hamstrung by tight budgets, skeleton staffs, and uncertain futures: You could be playing Dr. Frankenstein with federal funds instead. Really.

The Pentagon is upping the stakes on the Feds' long-held desire to develop swarms of tiny spies by awarding a contract that seeks to create a race of machine-insect hybrids capable of detecting, and differentiating between, chemical agents. The contract awarded recently to Agiltron Corp. (scroll nearly to the bottom of the page to find it) seeks to surgically insert sensors, actuators and other electronics during the metamorphosis stage of insect development, resulting in a race of cyborg insects that could be controlled remotely, and react with specific twitches to identify particular chemicals.

It appears the effort is a spin-off of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Hybrid Insect MEMS program, which has sought to develop a machine-insect interface for all sorts of purposes, such as researching insect habits, or -- for our more paranoid agencies-- sniffing out weapons of mass destruction.

The Pentagon's plans compliment parallel military efforts to design robotic insects (no actual biological life form necessary) that could be used to do everything from microscopic repairs to spying to serving as weapons. Think air fighters, shrunk down to the size of a housefly, and you have the general idea.

I don't know which approach makes our species sound sicker: Systematically converting another life form into drone slaves that do our dirty work for us, or designing teeny little airborne assault vehicles that can attack unwary enemies. But if I had to take my pick, I'd go with the machine-insect interface, which on some level makes me wish that one of the researchers in charge be subject to the same nightmare endured by the main character in "The Fly."

As helpful as these tiny critters could be for IT down the road--imagine a small swarm that patrols your data center, controlling climate, detecting malfunctions, and being able to affect repairs inside server racks without any employees having to move a muscle--the implications are more disturbing than encouraging. Never mind the inevitable outcries of the lunatic fringe of insect rights advocates. Consider a scenario in which insect spies are used to watch--or worse, attack--Americans, a possibility raised by this Washington Post report from 2007. In the wrong hands, insect cyborgs could make the Patriot Act look like the Declaration of Independence.

That said, you have to admire the lengths to which humans will go to seek out information. Because really, that's what the machine-insect interface is all about: the ability to collect, share, transmit, analyze and act on information in ways that we could only dream of without those little buggers.

The unfortunately and unavoidably dark side of such capabilities is that insect spies have as much potential military value as Google.