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If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need more of, it’s rats. But try telling that to the researchers at France’s Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics (ISIR) who have thrown themselves into designing a realistic ratbot capable of scuttling around on tiny wheels, seeking food, avoiding dangers and presumably scaring the bejeezus out of innocent humans.

Psikharpax, as they’re calling it, is named after a cunning king of the rats found in the tales of Homer.

Why create a robotic version of one of nature’s most reviled creatures? For one thing, the rat is simpler than a human. While roboticists have for a long time been trying to create intelligent machines capable of figuring out dangers and opportunities and learning from their experiences, we humans are just too complex and highly developed to mimic well just yet.

The researchers have decided to start closer to the bottom with the rat, an animal that scientists already know very well and whose brain, I’m sad to inform you, actually bears a great resemblance to yours and mine.

The European researchers recently debuted Psikharpax at a research and innovation fair in Paris. The ratbot has cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, and tiny wheels for feet. Several dozen five-inch-long whiskers jut out on either side of its long, pointed snout and, like real whiskers, gather information about obstacles in the rat’s way.

Data from these artificial organs goes to Psikharpax’s “brain,” a chip whose software was designed to mimic the structures in a rat’s brain that process and analyze what is seen, heard, and sensed.

For instance, if Psikharpax’s eyes sense that its surroundings are dark, the software gives a greater weight of importance to data from the whiskers, in the same way that a rat, at night, relies on other sensors to compensate for loss of vision.

“We want to make robots that are able to look after themselves and depend on humans as least as possible,” said ISIR researcher Agnes Guillot. “If we want to send a robot to Mars, or help someone in a flat that we don’t know, the robot has to have the ability to figure out things out for itself.”

Psikharpax’s aim in life is to be able to “survive” in new environments, that is, to navigate around obstacles, to avoid dangers like collisions and to spot opportunities for “feeding” — recharging its battery at power points placed around the lab. Hopefully it will stop there, and not go on to develop the abilities to dig through trash or spread the bubonic plague.

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