A team of researchers from the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) and Tsinghua University said they have developed a robot rat that they hope can be used in post-disaster rescue missions. In the findings published in the peer-reviewed journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics this month, they revealed that the mechanical rodent can squeeze through narrow spaces, climb slopes, get over obstacles and even walk on snow, adding that it could be used to carry medical supplies or emergency rations to places rescuers cannot access—take hard-to-reach incidents like people trapped under rubble after an earthquake.
According to the South China Morning Post, lead author Shi Qing, a professor and the vice-director of the intelligent robotics institute at the BIT, said the team has been upgrading the prototype since 2019 and hopes to get the robot ready for market launch as early as 2025.
“The robotic rat can be sent to earthquake ruins or building collapse scenes where debris forms spaces that are too narrow for rescuers to enter. It can deliver emergency rations to people trapped under rubble,” Qing said. “It can also navigate complex underground pipeline networks, a key part of smart city development. A larger inspection robot can carry the robotic rat into the network, where it can be deployed to go into smaller pipes for detection tasks,” he continued.
By imitating the motion of actual rats, the robot can stand from a crouching position or stay low to the ground, crawling in spaces with low ceiling height. It can also efficiently turn in curved narrow passages and recover from falls by controlling its limbs and cervical spine to adjust its centre of mass, allowing it to work on rugged terrains, the paper said.
To implement such ability and ease of movement in the mechanical technology, the team used X-ray recordings to observe the skeletal structure of rats and build the robot, which can be assembled with 3D-printed parts in about one week.
The head and body of the robot rat are made of photosensitive resin, while high-strength nylon forms its four limbs to ensure strength and rigidity. It also has a tail made of soft rubber that can move up and down to maintain balance when it moves.
Measuring 19 centimetres (7.5 inches) in length and weighing 220 grams (7.8 ounces), the robot is powered by solar rechargeable batteries that can last 30 minutes and be controlled remotely via wifi using a computer or phone.
According to Qing, it walks at an average speed of 15 centimetres per second and has a 200-gram payload for sensor installation or transporting light goods. The team added that they will continue to upgrade the robot, including improving its agility, installing more sensors for field tests in narrow unstructured pipelines and waterproofing the machine body.
In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.
At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.
Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.
When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”
Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.
The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.