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Robobees, the Future of Agriculture, Disaster Recovery and… Espionage

Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Over the years, a number of factors have negatively influenced the bee population across the world, including the high pesticide use across North America. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that some 700 bee species in North America are on the brink of extinction, alone.

Although it would probably be more beneficial in the long run to stop using so much pesticide and take better care of the little bees our lives and livelihood depend on, the tech world has come up with a solution, or, at the very least, it’s working on one – robot bees.

Folks over at Harvard have been working for years on these robot bees. In 2013, for instance, when they were first unveiled, the little bots were only capable of taking off and flying. Now, four years later, they can stick to surfaces, swim underwater, and perhaps the biggest achievement for such a tiny robot – dive in and out of water. Since getting out of water is such a big chore for tiny insects, making the 175 milligrams RoboBee capable of such a feat wasn’t easy.

The system uses water as fuel, pairing tiny electrolytic plates which convert the water into oxyhydrogen, which is an explosive gas. The RoboBee got a redesign to incorporate all the extra gear, including a central gas chamber and buoyant outriggers. It seems, however, that there are yet no sensors to help this little robot get remotely controlled. In the future, however, that’s exactly what might very well happen, because they’d need some guidance if they’re to take over tasks such as pollinating crops.

This is, of course, fantastic development and it can greatly help the world’s crops. Until you consider all the implications, that is.

Picture this possible scenario a few years from now: the bees now have sensors and a miniature camera for guidance. A swarm of these things flies over your backyard, taking away your privacy. But there already are drones, you’ll say. Sure, there are drones that can and do this already, but those are large enough that you can easily see them. These little bees are the size of a coin.

You have zero control over what they can see and what data they gather. Thanks to Moore’s law of exponentiality, we may very well have plenty of local storage space on a very, very tiny piece of hardware, to make this possible. What’s more, these bees would be unstoppable by most physical barriers. They can fly over fences, and even enter homes through windows left open and so on.

Aside from the great applications this type of tiny autonomous robot has in agriculture, disaster recovery or nature preservation, it could also very well be used for other purposes, such as military intelligence. If they can be hijacked by criminals, that is an even bigger threat.

As time goes on, we need to reconsider what privacy really means to us. The word changes meaning with every new decade, and it varies from country to country, region to region, person to person. What was private a few decades ago, is no longer private now; what Mary may consider private, John may not.

With this type of technology, perhaps even more than when drones came on out on the market, we need to think hard about what we consider to be private, what kind of secrets we want to keep hidden from the rest of the world and what kind of details we may not have problems sharing with others. Traditionally, we consider our homes to be the places where we can relax, be ourselves, free ourselves of the masks we wear in public, of the burden of making sure we don’t overshare. And yet, we invite all kinds of connected devices inside our homes, which can listen in on us; putting convenience over privacy.

So, how would you feel if a swarm of these little robotic bees turned spies, would hover in your garden, maybe even enter your home? What secrets would they expose?


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