Being such playful, charismatic, and energetic animals, it’s easy to understand why humans are so charmed by dolphins. However, their social behavior and remarkable intelligence is precisely the reason why these animals aren’t suited to life in captivity. Luckily, if you’ve always yearned to get up close and personal with these wonderful animals but felt morally obligated to refrain from doing so, a special effects company in America may have come up with the perfect solution.
Edge Innovations are the animatronics and special effects company behind some of cinema’s oceanic favorites including Free Willy, Flipper, and Deep Blue Sea. Following the halt in animal trade in China in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Chinese aquarium approached Edge Innovations with the idea of creating a robotic dolphin that could replace the animals used in hands-on demonstrations. They hoped that they could preserve the educational benefits of such exhibits without the need for the capture and captivity of these self-aware animals.
It appears they succeeded, as the video below captures the eerily convincing early prototype put together by the team. The robotic dolphin can run – or swim, as it were – for 10 hours without charging and is predicted to be able to survive in salty water with other fish for up to 10 years.
The resulting technology is intended for use as an educational tool to amaze visitors but is also a demonstration of the technologies Edge Innovations believe could be applied to animatronic belugas, orcas, or even great whites, all of which are unsuitable for captivity. By creating ethical alternatives to living animals that can play, perform, and put up with cramped living conditions in the same way that living captive dolphins are expected to, it’s hoped the invention will speed up the process of phasing out live animal performances from theme parks like SeaWorld.
Weighing a hefty 270 kilograms (595 pounds), the dolphins have been designed with a realistic muscular-skeletal framework beneath their artificial skin so that they can mimic the movements as well as the appearance of an adolescent bottlenose dolphin. The ensemble gives the illusion of something that is very much alive, but the robot, not yet fitted with cameras, sensors, or artificial intelligence, is actually just an elaborate puppet controlled by a nearby operator. The wizardry means the synthetic cetacean can respond to commands and interact with visitors in real-time.
The creation is pretty remarkable considering it represents a safe, ethical, and easy to maintain alternative to live animal performances, even if it does still require a human at the helm to tell it what to do. While an autonomous AI dolphin that can communicate independently would be pretty cool, I think 2020 has had enough to contend with without potentially evil overlord bionic dolphins taking control of the oceans.