Over at an aquarium facility in California, visitors are marveling over a dolphin as it jumps through hoops and performs acrobatics in a pool.
Look a little bit closer and you’ll realize that the the marine animal is actually a remote-controlled robot invented by Edge Innovations, a company that specialises in animatronics and special effects.
AI not limited to humans
We’ve always joked that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will one day take over all our human jobs. And it looks like even the rest of the animal kingdom is not spared; AI technology might even replace animals one day!
Lifelike human robots have been making the rounds, and are even able to interact and respond as a human being. It’s not surprising that technology has now extended to animals, to recreate their actions and behaviours whilst looking exactly like a moving, breathing replica.
Preventing animal cruelty
Just like how robots can make our lives easier by automating repetitive and sometimes even dangerous tasks, these robots will be able to replace the captive animals, freeing them from a life of confinement.
Currently, there is at least 3,000 dolphins who are held in captive to provide exclusive dolphin experiences for visitors. Captive dolphins tend to be bred specifically for these experiential parks, and it can be damaging as some species might not survive well in captivity. Some even suffer from unusual illnesses and are unable to breed.
And that’s just dolphins. Other animals kept in captivity for entertainment like monkeys, orcas, and elephants often suffer from a variety of illnesses and diseases related to being kept in enclosed spaces, and even experience premature deaths. Wildlife animals are not made to be in a man-made environment, without much room to roam or space to interact. Even a carefully constructed natural environment is not enough to recreate the needs from the natural state of the wild.
Used in Hollywood
You might also have unknowingly laid eyes on these robot animals on the big screen. Called animatronics, these robots have been used as early as 1964 in the Disney film Mary Poppins, which featured an animatronic bird.
Other popular films that use animatronics animals include the sharks in Jaws, the huge ape in King Kong, the aquatic creatures in Anaconda, and the dinosaurs in the quintessential dino film, Jurassic Park.
Besides animals, animatronics are increasingly used to make realistic monsters and other worldly beings, as seen in Extra-Terrestrial and the newer Star Wars movies.
If you’ve ever visited a movie set or movie-inspired ride in a theme park, they most likely use animatronics in their exhibitions to bring the movies to life. Sometimes, these might even be the actual animatronics used in the movies!
Building new worlds and experiences
While replacing current captive animals in theme parks and circuses to satisfy live show experiences is the goal, animatronics paves the way for more interactive and even new ideas. Because these robots are created from scratch, anything is possible. Underwater worlds, prehistoric realms, and even ancient civilisations previously only possible in virtual reality might not be out of reach after all.
Edge Innovations has a current partnership programme with TeachKind, where they use an animatronic dolphin to headline school programmes in a Sesame Street-esque idea. The programme aims to let people interact and build relationships with natural creatures in a comfortable environment without having to remove them from their natural habitats.
And it’s not just limited to watching the robotic dolphin move on the other side of the glass; visitors can even swim alongside the dolphin!
How soon can we expect to see these animatronics?
Singapore is already on the list of countries that have banned wild animals in circuses, joining counties like Scotland, England, Russia, Austria, and Mexico in ensuring that wild animals are not exploited.
That said, it would probably take more than a few years for these animatronics to appear here. A single robotic animal cost millions of dollars to build, and would require a lot of money and time to be invested.