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I’m With Stupid – September 4, 2015

ROBOTS COULD DESTROY ALL LIFE IN THE PACIFIC
by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallIf you’ve heard of the film (or the actual object) “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” you may have some idea of Australia’s unfortunate history with invasive and non-native species. Suffice it to say that back in the day, a guy released 24 rabbits so he could hunt them, and they bred like rabbits, and eventually Australia had so many rabbits the government had to run a fence all the way across the country to try to contain their numbers.

It apparently didn’t work, because Australia now has more than 200 million rabbits and has taken to spreading a virus that is deadly to rabbits to try to kill them off. Apparently, the virus doesn’t work very well, either.

The rabbit story is pretty sad, but there’s actually a better illustration of Australia’s questionable dealings with invasive species. Back in the 1930s, sugar cane farmers decided they needed a way to control cane beetles, which are native to Australia but damaging to sugar cane crops. Their ill-conceived solution was to release a bunch of non-native cane toads, a large South American species that eats beetles but is poisonous to humans and other mammals.

Care to guess how many of the toxic toads live in Australia these days? If you guessed more than 200 million, you’re right. There also are more than 7.2 million foxes, 1.1 million wild dromedary camels, 13 million to 23 million feral pigs and an untold number of millions of feral cats. All are considered pests and pose a high or extreme threat to Australia’s ecology. (All of those numbers are from Wikipedia, so take them with a grain of salt.)

No amount of control measures, which have included hunting, trapping, poisoning and more fences, in addition to spreading viruses, seem to have had much effect on the populations of rabbits, toads, foxes, camels, pigs and cats. That’s why I don’t hold out much hope for Australia’s latest attempt to deal with an invader.

If you’ve heard of Australia, you might know that one of the things it’s most famous for is the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system, which sits off the shore of northeastern Australia. Evidently, the reef is under attack by the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS, in the lingo of Australian researchers), an invasive species that destroys the coral.

Unlike rabbits and toads, COTS are native to Australian waters, but their numbers have skyrocketed in the past few decades, and they now pose a serious threat to the reef, which is a valuable tourist attraction. It’s clear that something needs to be done to try to control the COTS population.

Here’s Australia’s solution, which is the most awesome thing ever: the Cotsbot, a self-guided, submersible robot that seeks out, identifies and lethally injects COTS. It’s basically an uncontrolled underwater drone, and since we all know there’s never any collateral damage involved with drone strikes, there’s no way this could possibly go wrong.

The Cotsbot, which is undergoing testing in Brisbane right now, has a “state-of-the-art computer vision and machine learning system” and has been “trained to recognize COTS from among a vast range of corals using thousands of still images of the reef and videos taken by COTS-eradicating divers.”

So, basically, they showed this killing machine some pictures of COTS, and now they’re telling it, “Go and kill this thing,” and they’re trusting that the Cotsbot will only kill that thing and not other things like it. Sounds reasonable enough.

Thankfully, the COTS doesn’t look much like your typical starfish. It’s covered in venomous spines (hence the “crown of thorns” name) and looks more like a sea urchin or sea anemone. This is probably comforting to the other starfish but potentially troubling to all the innocent urchins and anemones that might be targeted by near-sighted Cotsbots.

Naturally, I hope Australia’s experiment in COTS eradication works out and they’re able to save the reef. I’d like to go there someday and would hate to see it covered with COTS. But I’m a little worried that the Cotsbot’s “machine learning system” will learn that it likes eradicating things and might cause the Cotsbot to go on a mad killing spree that wipes out all life in the Pacific Ocean.

Sure, that may sound a little far-fetched, but if Australia’s track record with introducing things to eliminate other things is any indication, in 80 years’ time, there could be 200 million Cotsbots swimming around lethally injecting things. It won’t seem like such a good idea then, will it?

Todd Hartley is convinced that robots will figure out a way to breed. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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