Stories tagged whiskers

It's Friday, and y'all know what that means. Yup, time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Many mammals have whiskers but not all whisk. Cats don't. Rats do. To whisk, rats use special muscles in their face to brush their whiskers against an object. From the bending bristles, rats seem to be able to decode an object's shape and texture and Mitra Hartmann, engineer at Northwestern University, wants to understand how. This week, Hartmann and colleagues published a 3D whisker model, which she says will help quantify what information the brain receives from a whisk."


Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.
Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.Courtesy The Weizmann Institute of Science
The way that scientists seem to be able to read my mind, or at least predict the things I’ll want, is frightening to me sometimes. Frightening in the best way, of course, like how a birthday party is frightening.

See, just the other day I was lying on the floor of my room, thinking about rats. I was thinking about how great rats are, and wishing that there was some way to increase the ratty-ness of the world. Because, for all the great things about rats, they still have their drawbacks. Their size, for one—rats can get pretty big, but, in my opinion, not nearly big enough. Also, rats die. Could there possibly be a way, I wondered, there on the floor, to create a rat that can’t die? Maybe a whole race of undying rats? Dreams, I thought, just dreams…

Not so. Scientists have done their thing (science) and created a robotic “whiskered” rat (and remember, robots can’t die, not really). And don’t change your pants just yet, not until you hear this—the robo-rat is also four times the size of a real rat! Where dreams end and reality begins is no longer obvious to me!

The “whiskers” of the robot are intended to allow it to identify objects through touch (an angle largely ignored in robotics). Using this powerful sense, researchers say, “the whiskered robot will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects.” Wonderful! All that sentence needs is for a “kill” to be inserted, and we’ll have perfection.

Oddly enough, the creation of a giant, blind, robotic rat is not the ultimate goal of this research. By building a robot to that mimics an animal’s senses, scientists hope to learn more about the way the brain processes and interprets data gathered by these senses. The step-by-step construction of this “brain like system” allows scientists to find the most efficient and accurate methods of interpreting sense data, and the result is likely very similar to the brain’s own processes. The results of a project like this one might eventually be applied to the construction of machines, for instance, that could be used “in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.” Or, ideally, to fill the nights of the future with huge, metal rats.