The robots are coming for your job… if you’re a dolphin
Hyper-realistic animal robots are coming... but should they replace the real thing in zoos and aquariums?
In March of 2022, I jumped into a heated pool in California to meet a dolphin named Delle. As I approached her, I was captivated by the smooth movements of the powerful, 250kg body gliding through the water. After swimming a few laps, Delle turned toward me and became playful, greeting me by splashing me with her beak. Delighted, I reached out to stroke her shiny skin. It felt rubbery, which, along with the thin cable snaking along the bottom of the pool, was the main giveaway that Delle the dolphin was a robot.
Delle, a hyper-realistic animatronic dolphin, was created with the goal of replacing real dolphins in aquariums and marine amusement parks. While some might lament the showcasing of replicas instead of live creatures, the idea has merit.
Captive animals have long been a source of human entertainment. We’ve kept lions in cages for thousands of years, enraptured Medieval towns with travelling circuses, and opened the first modern zoo in Paris in 1793. More recently, animals became both props and protagonists on the silver screen.
In fact, the company behind Delle the Dolphin, named Edge Innovations, was a big player in the world of special effects, creating mock sea animals for Hollywood films like Star Trek, Free Willy, and The Perfect Storm. One of the benefits, aside from adding to filmmakers’ entertainment tools, is that it’s easy to assure viewers that 'no animals were harmed'.
Just as animal props are becoming deceptively realistic, it’s becoming increasingly less acceptable to use live animals for entertainment purposes. Documentaries like Blackfish (2013) and The Cove (2009) have exposed some of the horrific treatment and suffering of ocean mammals. The resulting public outcry has rendered marine parks controversial, attracting more protesters and fewer visitors.
It’s not just aquatic animals: Countries around the world have begun to ban circus animals. The iconic American Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus featured performing elephants, tigers, and other beastly attractions for over a century before animal cruelty protests drove them out of business in 2017. They recently announced a comeback – without live animals.
And yet, arguably, entertaining people with captive animals is vital for animal conservation. Many zoos and aquariums actively try to promote conservation efforts by providing educational experiences and encouraging interest in the natural world. Giving kids (and grownups) the opportunity to see and interact with live animals is generally a lot more exciting and engaging than something in a book or on a screen.
This type of entertainment is useful, because it inspires people to care. And even staunch animal rights activists are divided on the costs and benefits of zoos, since they recognise the value in getting newer generations interested in animals’ lives.
At first blush, this seems like a reason to avoid replacing the animals with technology. And yet, research in the burgeoning field of human-robot interaction is showing astonishing results on engagement with robots that mimic lifelike behaviour. When physically embodied and interactive, robots attract a lot of attention. People tend to treat them like they’re alive, even though they know perfectly well they’re just machines. To paraphrase the research: we’re suckers for things that look cool and move.
Take Delle the dolphin. The current version of this device isn’t so much a robot as an animatronic, meaning it has no autonomous behaviour. The dolphin’s body is entirely remote-controlled. But for the engagement effect, it barely matters whether Delle is an animal, a robot, or a mechanical puppet. According to Edge Innovations, you can tell the people who interact with the dolphin exactly what’s going on and they don’t care. They are just as excited to play with it.
If we start to replace the animals in our theme parks with machines, will this trend decrease our wonder for the natural world? A bunch of people expressed negative gut reactions after I posted footage of the robot dolphin on Twitter.
And yet, I don’t believe that using this robot replica will cause us to forget the worth of living creatures. My personal experience matched the Delle creators’ claims: swimming with a doppelgänger was thrilling, and even more fun knowing that no animals were harmed in the process. If anything, I came away from this reminded of how precious real dolphins are.
Animal robots have the potential to provide the type of engaging experience that’s ideal for conservationists: entertainment that gets new generations interested, without deceiving them, and without harming real animals.
In fact, one of the best use cases for robots generally is to take on important tasks that are dangerous for living beings, whether that’s bomb inspection, handling nuclear waste, or lifting heavy boxes in factories. Technology is a tool in our arsenal that can help alleviate suffering on the job. As we fight for social and technological progress to protect workers, I see no reason to leave the dolphins behind.
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Dr Kate Darling is a Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab and author of The New Breed. Her interest is in how technology intersects with society.