"The rat is the animal that scientists know best, and the structure of its brain is similar to that of humans," says doctoral student Steve Nguyen, showing off Psikharpax at a research and innovation fair in Paris last week. The robot's unlikely name derives from a story attributed to the ancient greek writer Homer about a clever "king of the rats".
Psikharpax has two cameras for eyes, two microphone ears and a set of tiny wheels for locomotion. Four inch whiskers do more than decorate its pointed snout; these vibrassae are intended to be a part of the robot's sensory system, just like that of an organic rat.
Data from the whiskers and other artificial organs goes to Psikharpax's chip brain; its software hierarchy is designed to be similar to the structures in a rat's brain that process and analyze what is seen, heard and sensed.
For example, if the robot's eyes sense that it is dark, the internal software gives priority to data coming from the whiskers. This mimics the way that a rat's brain, at night, relies on other sensors to compensate for loss of vision.
Robot rat survival is the goal - avoiding human beings on the one hand while finding 'food' - electricity provided at power points throughout the lab.
It's not a new idea. Science fiction fans are familiar with the idea of robotic rodents, like the clever dustmice, from Greg Bear's excellent 1990 novel Queen of Angels; they were the servants of future detectives, running through carpets looking for clues.
Older fans recall with fondness the little cleaning mice (like tiny Roombas) from Ray Bradbury's 1950 short story collection The Martian Chronicles:
"Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms
were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They
thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the
rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust."
(Read more about Ray Bradbury's robot mice)
The French team is not the first to think of floor-running robots with whiskers; see AMouse: Bradbury's Robot Mice Get Real Whiskers. I also had another well, unusual idea. French researchers could build their robot rats with neurons from an actual rat. See Gordon The Robot Uses Cultured Rat Neurons; but maybe that would be cheating...
(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com)