The Robotic Fish known as Robofish has been seen by scientists as the first step toward understanding and controlling fish schools in a laboratory. Robofish is a sort of mind control device, though it only influences behavior rather than the minds of the fish who follow it. It’s essentially a fish designed to be lifelike enough to be mistaken as a stickleback fish by other fish.
The fish was demonstrated in a video found on the BBC’s website where the gates to a tank are opened and the school remains crowded in a small area before suddenly the robotic fish shoots out of the tank followed with exact precision by others who suddenly share Robofish’s interest for the outside world. But to an outside observer, this first move would look more or less like a simple decision by the school as a whole. This is because the fish are running on an instinct to follow the movements of others and act as a single entity. When the most assured and confident of them is suddenly calling the shots the others naturally assume it is working on information it has gathered of the outside world. This information can be the discovery of food, a predator, or some other need which ultimately results in the rest assuming they share a common goal.
Robofish is an interesting example of a group mentality being hijacked by an outsider. Through use of Robofish scientists at Leeds University are actually able to control the movements of a school of fish. It’s unknown if the use of more Robofish in a single tank would actually increase the effectiveness of the followers, but it’s eerie to watch as the device makes 90 degree turns and is quickly followed by the rest of the fish. It’s only when Robofish suddenly makes a turn away from the rest of the group that only a few investigate by observing, but ultimately decide it is making a choice to leave the group.
There are obvious applications for robotic fish that could have far reaching advantages for those controlling fish schools to drive them away from ecological disasters. An endangered species of any sort of pack animal may be able to be guided by a sufficiently convincing robot to move away from a dangerous area or toward more bounteous hunting grounds. Unfortunately, this would have an understandable effect on the natural evolution of the creatures themselves, as any environmental factor can have, but it may be worth the cost if it allows the species to navigate this harsh period of mankind’s quest to ensure the survival of biologically diverse ecosystems.
But it also raises an interesting analogy. If Robofish were able to control schools of fish by manipulating the trends and pack mentality of the whole, how difficult would it be really to effectively manipulate human social trends as well? Of course no one is suggesting that there are robotic people walking around guiding traffic, but in the years to come with the advancement of human understanding of group dynamics is it not possible that subtle movements could manipulate the vast reaches of mankind’s progress through history by social engineering? As tangential as it sounds, the difference is nothing more than a matter of how advanced the device is (such as television), and its purpose.