As far as slippery slope scenarios go, machines that power themselves with animal flesh aren’t a good starting point. I get that we want to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and everything. Solar power? Go for it. Wind power? Hell yeah! An household appliance that feasts off the bodies of trapped of insects? Um, could I get a few more details?
Recently NPR’s Robert Krulwich looked at a clock designed by James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau, two British designers who specialize in WTF inventions like said carnivorous clock. Right now it’s not the world’s most attractive device, considering it’s basically a tiny, very utilitarian looking alarm clock connected to a long conveyor belt that’s covered in flypaper. The flies get caught in the paper and then are dragged in dramatic fashion (calling Pixar!) towards a blade, which scrapes them off so that they fall into the fuel cell where bacteria converts the flies into energy.
Right now eight flies can power the clock (but not the conveyor belt) for 12 days. If they could get it to work more efficiently, you can see how beneficial this could be. You could install a bug-trapping lantern on your patio which would both get rid of unwanted flying insects and never have to be powered, saving you money on electricity and preserving vital fossil fuels. The insect-feeding devices aren’t really what have me worried. In poor tropical areas, I can see how these could eventually be a great boon to society, as insect-born diseases and lack of power are both major problems. If you could somehow design a lamp or generator that feeds off of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to remote villages that lack any electricity, I would say call Bill Gates right away and start shipping those babies off.
What’s slightly more disturbing, though, is the mouse-eating coffee table (pictured below). It works by tempting rodents up one over-sized leg with cheese and then luring them into a hole at its center, where their heads are lopped off by a blade and their bodies drop into the fuel cell. Yes, it sounds like a funny episode of Itchy & Scratchy, but I’d hate to be the parent who had to explain to their child why the coffee table just ate Mickey. They don’t really explain why a table needs to be powered, but I could see how it could eventually have a few sockets or USB cords hidden away under it so you could power your laptop with mice souls.
Projects like this are fascinating because on one level, they are extremely practical, but on another they are inherently revolting. Think of the outcry when people first heard that scientists in Holland were growing in-vitro meat in a laboratory. The potential benefit to mankind is astronomical; what if we could stop using resources to feed our livestock and just grow meat in huge labs? Alas, it’s not that simple. It just feels wrong, and there is something to be said about following your gut instinct. At the same time, if we just ignored ideas that felt wrong to us at the time, we still might think that the Sun revolved around a flat Earth.
It certainly is a tricky line to walk when talking about using technology to move mankind “forward,” whatever that means. The mouse-eating table certainly feels wrong to us, but why? People use mousetraps to kill rodents all the time. Rodents historically have been carriers of deadly disease and to this day can be a strain to poor families in developing countries who can little afford to lose stores of grain. Buying a cat who will disembowel a still-breathing rat is okay, but using that same rat to power a TV isn’t?
Putting aside the horrific image of carnivorous intelligent machines hunting down humans in the streets, is there any logical reason to be opposed to a project like this? Well, I guess animal rights groups wouldn’t be too keen on it, but they would probably also feel the same way about mousetraps. The point is, humans are increasingly being sheltered from what they kill. Every shiny, plastic-wrapped chicken breast you eat was a living animal that was slaughtered. If you put poison out in the garden to kill a gopher, it still dies even if you don’t see its body. That the body is used for such practical purposes as powering an electronic device certainly feels off, but if you could own what is essentially a fancy mousetrap that would limit your dependence on fossil fuels, I don’t see how I or anyone could object. Still, though … ick.
Photos: Auger Loizeau