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Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Learning

Critical Thinking Activities


How Did the Behavioral Study of Learning Develop?

Ratbots: Can Remote-Controlled Rodents Rescue People?
In the year 2000, Dr. John Chapin and Dr. Sanjiv Talwar of the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center began work on the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices. They imagined an artificial hand that would grip and release as the owner willed it or legs that would allow a paralyzed patient to walk and run naturally. Because of the relative simplicity of the rat brain, they first attempted to build a brain-machine link using a rat as a model. Chapin, Talwar, and their colleagues experienced some success in linking a simple robot arm to the brain of a rat and teaching the rat to use the mechanical arm to deliver water.

However, an earthquake that shook India in January 2001 and the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States caused both scientists to rethink the focus of their work. When a building collapses, heavy machinery must often be brought into the disaster site to rescue survivors, but that very equipment has the potential to cause further injury to survivors. Furthermore, where does a rescuer look first? How can they get a look into the rubble to see where the survivors might be trapped without increasing danger? Rats are well designed by nature to enter small places and scramble about. Could rats be trained to look for survivors who are caught under the rubble of a collapsed building?

Chapin and Talwar wondered if their prosthetic limb technology could be adapted for use in search-and-rescue operations, and subsequently implanted electrodes into sensory bundles that signaled left and right whisker touches and also into the medial forebrain bundle, a pleasure center for rats. They learned that they could steer the rat by stimulating the whisker bundle on the desired side, and then stimulating the medial forebrain bundle when the rat moved in the desired direction. Each rat was fitted with a tiny head-mounted camera and light and a transmitter backpack that sent live video from the camera back to the human controller. As the linked video shows, the rats were able to negotiate mazes, climb stairs, and go through rubble piles, all while under the guidance of a controller who watched their progress on a screen.

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Chapter 6 discusses the relationship among biology, cognition, and operant conditioning. How does the concept of biological constraint mentioned in your chapter affect the choice of a rat as a candidate for learning the desired skills? What other animals would be appropriate for such tasks?
Is it acceptable to put animals at risk for the purpose of possibly saving human lives? Some thoughts you might want to consider as you frame your response: Would it make a difference if the animal were apparently more sentient? That is, would the sacrifice of a chimpanzee or porpoise to save a human be less appropriate than, say, the sacrifice of a cockroach? Would the sacrifice of one animal to save many humans be acceptable? If you were in charge of developing rescue operations and were given access to ratbots, would you use them in a disaster to find human survivors? As taxpayers, should we fund such research? Explain your answers.r>
Some researchers hope to build, based on this animal research and design, small robots that can crawl around in places without air or in high temperatures where even a rat would not go. If the animal research provides a springboard for developing small mechanical search robots, would the use of the animals be condoned?
Web Links for Further Exploration

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National Geographic at

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