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This article was published on May 24, 2017

This ‘parasitic robot’ is a bleak metaphor for our online behavior

Alejandro Tauber
Story by

Alejandro Tauber

Former Editor-in-Chief, TNW

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have developed a so-called ‘parasitic robot’ that lives on the back of a turtle. The robot steers the turtle by offering it little rewards when it does the robots bidding. Sound familiar?

For any keyboard warrior who wants to call out the researchers for animal cruelty, please consider the fact that the researchers use the exact same mechanism that keeps us glued to our various social media channels: operant conditioning.

By offering small but significant rewards – new posts, likes on our own posts, more friends, or in the turtle’s case, “a gel-type food from a syringe” – our simple brains are being trained to exhibit the behavior desired by our robotic or social media overlords. The only big difference here is that the turtle is actually getting a tasty snack for its obedience.

IEEE Spectrum, the publication that first reported on the robot, writes that the researchers will be working on “‘the development of virtual reality technology and an enhanced sensor system,’ which would create a more immersive environment to make sure that the robot maintains control.” Once again: Sound familiar?

And to complete the dystopian parallel, the researchers would eventually like to devise a way for the robotic parasite to harvest energy directly from its host – to power itself and produce small morsels of gel-type food to steer us around and keep us hooked. Oops, did I say ‘us’? I meant the turtle, of course.

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