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Researchers Use Robotic Fish to Explore “Behavioral Teleporting”



Robotic Replica and Live Zebrafish (Image: NYU Tandon School of Engineering)

Researchers from the NYU Tandon School of Engineering are working on a new approach called “behavioral teleporting,” which could lead to a more in-depth understanding of social behavior, interactions between invasive and native species, predator/prey relationships, as well as better human/robot interfaces.

The team of researchers was led by Maurizio Porfiri, Institute Professor at NYU Tandon. The research was published in the Cell Press journal iScience, titled “Behavioral Teleporting of Individual Ethograms onto Inanimate Robots: Experiments on Social Interactions in Live Zebrafish.” 

Behavioral Teleporting

The new system called behavioral teleporting is the transfer of the complete inventory of behaviors and actions of a live organism onto a remotely located robotic replica. For the researchers’ work, a live zebrafish was the basis, which allowed them to independently manipulate and understand social interactions in real-time. 

The team first constructed a setup of two seperate aquatic tanks each containing one fish and one robotic replica. Within each tank, the live fish swam with the robotic replica, which was replicating and matching the morphology and locomotory pattern of the live fish in the other tank.

The researchers relied on an automated tracking system to score the locomotory patterns of the live fish, which were used to control the robotic replica in the other tank through an external manipulator. Because of this system, the complete ethogram of each fish was able to be transferred across tanks in just a fraction of a second. 

This system created an interaction between the two remotely-located live animals through the use of robotics. With the capacity to independently control the morphology of the robots, the teams set out to explore connections between appearance and movements in social behavior. 

The replica teleported the fish motion with a 95% accuracy rate in almost all trials, with a maximum time lag of less than two-tenths of a second. 

In some of Porfiri’s previous work, he was able to demonstrate robots as successful behavior models for zebrafish, with schools of zebrafish following their robotic counterparts. 

“In humans, social behavior unfolds in actions, habits, and practices that ultimately define our individual life and our society,” said Simone Macrì of the Centre for Behavioral Sciences and Mental Health, Isituto Superiore di Sanitá, Rome. “These depend on complex processes, mediated by individual traits — baldness, height, voice pitch, and outfit, for example — and behavioral feedback, vectors that are often difficult to isolate. This new approach demonstrates that we can isolate influences on the quality of social interaction and determine which visual features really matter.” 

One of the team’s findings came from experiments on leader/follower roles between large and small fish. In the experiments, a large fish swam with a small replica that mirrored the behavior of a small fish in the other tank. The team was surprised to find that the smaller fish led the interactions rather than the larger one.

Behavioral Teleporting Aquatic Tanks (Image: NYU Tandon School of Engineering)

Robotic Zebrafish Replicas (Image: NYU Tandon School of Engineering)


Human Uses

This system could be used for human interactions in the future, and the possibilities are endless. One such possibility is closed-loop teleporting, where robots would act as proxies of people. 

Mart Karakaya, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NYU Tandon, detailed one of the most exciting possibilities of the system.

“One example would be the colonies on Mars, where experts from Earth could use humanoid robots as an extension of themselves to interact with the environment and people there,” he said. “This would provide easier and more accurate medical examination, improve human contact, and reduce isolation. Detailed studies on the behavioral and psychological effects of these proxies must be completed to better understand how these techniques can be implemented into daily life.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.