Thursday, July 28, 2022

Necrobiotics My Spinnerets...

If you don't like spiders, don't read this. ;)


Lots of buzz over the relatively recent release that some researchers are using dead spiders as grippers. There's literally nothing ground breaking here - they inflate the spiders' legs, causing them to extend, then release the pressed and they contract. That's how spiders walk in the first place.

They spend some time trying to justify it - oh, it's biodegradable, they can sometimes lift more mass than the mass of the dead spider, etc etc. Even invented a term - necrobiotics.

But it's all kind of bunk, isn't it? First off, there isn't a massive issue with grippers filling up landfills as disposable parts. So who cares that they are biodegradable? In fact, let's talk about that part!

I didn't see any mention of the number of useful cycles, but a typical gripper is going to rate this in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Lifespan of a typical gripper will be measured in years.

The spider starts decaying the moment they kill it (and yes, they kill the spiders they use for this experiment). The duration during which they are going to be useful, before the bladder is damaged or the creature simply becomes too dry to operate - that's going to be measured in hours. Which means at least every day, to keep your machine operating, you need to capture a spider, kill it without damaging it, carefully inject the actuator into the correct bladder, seal the hole, and then put your machine back together. Maybe you can get quick at that, but it seems like a lot of effort!

They talk about using them for pick and place machines, which need to rapidly and accurately pick up, position and place thousands of parts an hour. It's hard to believe that using dead spiders is going to revolutionize the already-very-simple-and-reliable grippers that are used for this. (Suction, if I understand correctly...) And there's no indication about how long the extremely tiny and fragile hairs used to actually make things stick to their feet will last without life to renew them.

That last point got me thinking. Clearly, the answer is not zombie spiders, but borg spiders. If we can implant a small computer that is capable of controlling the spider, we may have something. No, not as a pick and place, that's stupid. But for other things. Reconnaissance, for instance. I dunno what else. Targeted pest control, maybe. ;)

My thinking there is that the computer is able to drive the spider, as well as receive sensor feedback. But most importantly, it's able to turn off the interface and restore the spider to natural operation. The advantage of this is that, presumably, with appropriate rest breaks, the spider will naturally feed itself, and its biological processes will naturally repair the normal wear and tear of operation.

Morally, of course, this falls on the dark side of science. One might imagine that during periods of computer control, the spider would be experiencing a living hell. We might well be able to determine whether or not spiders have any sentience - any sense of self. If they did, I can only imagine the horrors they would try to cope with when the computer turns off.

I'm (fortunately) far too busy to create borg arachnids. Partially because spiders creep me right the hell out. And besides, for a pick and place, clearly ants are a far better choice. ;)


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