Are fish smart enough to tell the difference between real fish and replicant fish? Apparently not. Researcher Maurizio Porfiri is developing robot swimmers that can interact with schools of fish and even lead them around.
You might think Porfiri, an engineering professor at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, might be aiming to use these infiltrator bots to lead large groups of fish into a net for a free aquarium. That seems to be theoretically possible, but the goal of Porfiri's project is to get robots to help fish avoid hazardous areas like power plant turbines.
But verisimilitude doesn't seem to be important for leadership. Porfiri and other scientists have observed that what distinguishes fish leaders is that they swish their tails faster, circle around, and accelerate to gather a school, and then lead it.
Porfiri modeled the behavior of bait fish based on the principles of fluid dynamics. He guessed that since schooling fish swim with different species varying in appearance and size, they would accept a robotic leader that was larger than themselves.
His cyberfish is built out of ionic polymers, which act like artificial muscles when voltage is applied to them. This biomimetic approach allows the robot to swim naturally enough to get a school to follow it. The video at the top of this page from last year shows a bunch of golden shiners following the robot. The current prototype is powered by a battery, though Porfiri wants to eliminate that and have it run on electromagnetic waves.
Porfiri is working on the mathematics of fish leadership now, but he also envisions using robots to lead birds to new habitats, or even humans to safety in the event of fire. If the latter is successful, I predict that robot politicians can't be far off. After all, they just have to mill around and shake their asses to get a following.