Welcome to the Age of Robot Animals

In Piracicaba, Brazil, 100,000 GMO bugs released every weekday morning. Photo: Plamen Petkov

Something tells me you’ve heard of the Zika virus — in fact, something tells me you are presently freaking out about it. That panic, I’m here to tell you, is not exactly rational (though I totally share it), since the virus poses quite a limited threat to anyone older than one trimester and since doctors are still unwilling to actually blame it for the rash of birth defects in Brazil. (Zika has shown up in a lot of places unaccompanied by microcephaly, and the doctors don’t have any clear picture of what is going on in Brazil.)

But our reflexive terror is also no great surprise, considering how neatly the virus collects the trip wires of contemporary end-time anxiety into a single bundled fuse. There’s the prospect of a pandemic, beaming out from the tropics. There are the birth defects, in particular those tiny heads — and the worry that you may give birth to a child with one. There is also no “cure” for Zika, and a vaccine, the doctors say, is at least a few years away. And then there is the fact that the disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, in places where the bugs are so pervasive the virus might as well be traveling by air, which mocks any defense as human as a quarantine. Given all that, what should the movie director in charge of this scenario command his screenwriter to have his hero do?

One thing is: kill the mosquitoes. Like, all of them, not just the ones carrying Zika. As Daniel Engber has pointed out in Slate, the bugs kill hundreds of thousands of people every year while offering basically no benefit — to us humans, or even the nonhuman environment, which they similarly terrorize. Now, a mosquito holocaust may seem difficult, if you are imagining mosquito nets and deet. Or environmentally catastrophic, if you are imagining blanketing whole countries in pesticides. For those who would like to not wait 20 years to get pregnant, however, or prefer not to eradicate the entire insect cloud of Latin America, there is one very appealing strategy — namely, releasing an army, or really an air force, of genetically modified mosquito hit men.

As you may have read, this is already happening: 100,000 GMO bugs released at seven every weekday morning in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba, the bugs’ DNA hijacked so that, while they are free to buzz around and find mates, they invariably pass a lethal gene to their offspring. According to Oxitec, the somewhat sinisterly named company administering the trial, the experiment has cut mosquito populations by 80 percent or more. And suddenly we are in a different kind of movie — one in which our biosphere is suffused with tiny agents acting semi-autonomously but, theoretically at least, or at the start at least, on our behalf.

Mostly, when we imagine this kind of sci-fi scenario, it’s not bugs but machines populating a world of our own design. In some corners, that vision goes by “the singularity,” and is less something to worry over than to have your mind blown, and possibly your mortality fixed, by; then there is the more terrifying version, for which the delicious Reddit shorthand is “robot apocalypse.” The thing is, droids of either kind are really hard to assemble. Skeptics of a robot takeover — the people arguing with Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates and Elon Musk — tend to focus on the problems of machine learning and artificial intelligence. AI is a famously difficult challenge, so difficult it’s hard even to tell how far we are from cracking it. But it’s also just one piece of the robot. A droid soldier, for instance, would also need to know how to walk and run, how to navigate complicated terrains, and a million other aspects of moving oneself through the world. A droid bug (like the ones the Pentagon began developing for surveillance around the turn of the century) would have to know how to fly, adapt to weather conditions, and, maybe most problematically, power itself. One recent prototype maxed out at 11 minutes; another could fly for only three.

But Mother Nature has endowed real bugs with all that knowledge already. Which, as the journalist Emily Anthes has documented, suggests one simple solution: biological organisms turned into something like robots, rather than hardware somehow alchemized into life. The animal kingdom is already full of organisms doing things we might find useful. All we have to do is figure out how to boss them around. And how hard is that? The phrase bird brain floats to mind. Mosquitoes, as you may have intuited while squishing them blithely between your fingers, are no birds.  

And so we might already be living in a robot apocalypse, just not recognizing the robots. To begin with, those anti-Zika mosquitoes are not exactly a vanguard as far as weaponizing Noah’s Ark — or “deputizing,” if you prefer to play rhetorical sheriff. Oxitec bugs are already at war with those carrying yellow fever. And an Australian project called Eliminate Dengue has deployed a different kind of mosquito made incapable of transmitting the disease by administered bacteria. A much-ballyhooed program to do the same for malaria is under way, too.

As for mammals, there are now rats we can control by electroshock; mice we can direct by a light-based process called optogenetics (“genetics” because we have to rewire them first); and monkeys we’ve outfitted with robotic prosthetics they can control, themselves, simply by thinking. We can wake mice up and put them to sleep remotely, and induce spasms of aggression in lackadaisical rodents. It is even possible to use remote controls to usher a cockroach out of your apartment — so easy, in fact, that a company called Backyard­ Brains will sell you an every­thing-you-need kit for just $99, plus the cost of actually handling a cockroach long enough to implant some electrodes in it. (Gross.) Dutch police are training eagles to take out rogue drones, and while it’s not exactly neural implants, the city of Lima is now outfitting local vultures with GPS and GoPro, since the birds are much better at discovering illegal garbage dumps than human inspectors, and who has the time or the money to develop robots or drones with skills as specialized as that? And while we’re not there yet, the very rapid rise of animal monitors and geotracking implants — in sharks, in hawks — does point the way to a possible near future in which the world’s wildlife is so intricately surveilled that we stop being able to reasonably refer to it as wildlife at all. (Maybe better not to mention that to ravens, who are, scientists have just discovered, quite capable of paranoia.)

And then there are all the ways we’ve set about transforming wildlife directly. There are the much-hyped GMO phytoplankton, for instance, designed to gobble up carbon in the ocean to help cool the planet. There are fish that go neon to send pollution alerts, and plants we’ve made to change color, too, when growing on top of land mines. These innovations aren’t even cutting-edge, really. We’ve already rewired pigs to produce phosphorus; conceivably we could do the same for cows and methane. We’ve built a microbe to detect arsenic in drinking water, and another for lead. We’ve been able to make E. coli produce diesel fuel for about a decade, though nobody yet has figured out how to do that profitably.

Over the last few years, at least the masochistic-conscientious liberals among us have gotten used to the image of the Earth as a planet completely transformed by human activity. The term for this era is the Anthropocene, and the claim embedded in the term is that the environmental effects of the ignorance and shortsightedness of industrialization amount to a genuinely new geological period. But a few hundred years is a very short time in the life span of a planet. And if you think long enough about the anti-Zika mosquito army, you can start to see it as the beginning of a much longer, much more interventionist era, when human activity doesn’t just transform the environment by accident, as a costly by-product, but by design, taking control of all those things that make up the “environment” and rebuilding them — bacteria, flora, and fauna, all commandeered at the level of the gene and retooled to serve us. Or amuse us. Whatever. Anthes’s book is called Frankenstein’s Cat, but she might just as easily have gone for Frankenstein’s Earth. Or The Planet of Dr. Moreau. Those Victorians were right: We do like to fiddle.

*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.