Now we're creating cyborg jellyfish. Should we be?

Here’s a brief diversion from politics that offers us a chance to explore just how fast science is advancing and whether there are moral questions underlying efforts to tinker with the fundamentals of life. This particular story is either a phenomenal advancement in biomechanical technology or evidence that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was actually a documentary. Out at Stanford University, engineers have created a cyborg jellyfish that’s alive but contains mechanical sensors and other technology. They plan to use it as a “low power robot” to explore the deep parts of the ocean. (CBS San Francisco)

Researchers at Stanford University have found new ways to explore the world’s oceans with a cyborg creation that seems straight out of science fiction.

After nearly six years of research, Stanford scientists say they have been able to turn the common jellyfish into a bionic creature that is part animal and part machine. Bio-engineering scientist Nicole Xu is one of two scientists working on this project.

“I create bionic jellyfish by integrating microelectronics into these animals, which are moon jellyfish,” explained Xu. “The idea is that moon jellyfish are incredibly energy efficient creatures. So if we incorporate them with a robotic system, then we can take advantage of these natural animals to create a low-power robot.”

Xu explains that the implanted devices deliver a shock to the jellyfish, causing it to swim three times faster than normal. But she assures us that jellyfish don’t have nervous systems or pain receptors, so the creature isn’t in pain. First question… how do we know that? Some scientists have previously concluded that plants can feel pain. But a jellyfish – an animal – can’t? Let’s hope not because it sounds like it’s already been through a lot of surgery.

So what’s the end game here? I mean, why are you turning sea creatures into robots? Xu says that they hope to be able to “steer” the jellyfish better in the future and attach sensors to them so they can explore the deep oceans. But if you can do it to a jellyfish, does that mean you can do it to other creatures? Or… people?

This seems every bit as ethically dodgy as testing makeup by putting it into rabbits’ eyes and blinding them. (And we’ve banned that in most places.) I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re already building robot dogs with artificial intelligence that are probably going to rise up and overthrow humanity at some point. But at least those are just machines.

This is… something else. Turning animals into cyborgs is undoubtedly an exciting new scientific frontier for these researchers, but doesn’t it just sound creepy? The problem is, the more I sit and consider it, I’m not sure what the ethical implications are unless they start messing around with primates or human beings in a similar fashion. We do arguably worse things to animals all the time in the course of animal husbandry. But this cyborg business just summons up images of Robocop. And you know how that played out.