August 11, 2020

Nature’s “Autonomous Vehicles” – Humboldt Squid

Post by: Shai Maron, VP R&D

Take one look at the creatures who inhabit the deep sea, and you’d think they came from another world. At 2,000 feet below the surface, water pressure is 882 pounds per square inch. Contrast that with air pressure, which is 14.5 pounds PSI, and it’s more than enough to squeeze the life out of most living beings. However, there is a creature that thrives at this level; the Humboldt Squid. Scientists have been using robotic subs to study these creatures, and their findings are reported on the Science Friday podcast, by Ira Flatow.

This illustration shows some of the body patterns used by Humboldt squid in Monterey Bay. (MBARI / Ben Burford)

Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments—from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That’s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep-diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.

Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid uses a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean.

Scientists’ preliminary conclusion suggests that the Humboldt Squid’s color-changing ability is more than skin-deep: the squids use their coloration to talk to each other. Humboldt Squid have been observed in huge groups, feeding on schools of fish. At first glance, it looks like absolute chaos.  But somehow, the squid do not bump into each other. It is not a result of extraordinary reflexes, but the ability to signal with their coloration. Different colors send messages such as rapid changes in direction. Instead of making sounds, squid use their bodies to say, “Watch out! I’m going left. I’m going right. I’m going straight…”

 If this system sounds familiar, it’s because we humans have done what we do best: borrow ideas from nature. Communication between manmade autonomous vehicles is a replica of what Humboldt Squid have been doing for thousands of years. As in many areas, nature did it first. The critical question is, “how did they manage to create such a highly coordinated, efficient system with tiny brains?” Evolution is the answer. Things that worked got reproduced and things that didn’t would disappear. When it comes to improving our technology in transportation and mobility, it’s helpful to follow nature’s lead.

To get our autonomous vehicles to work as effectively as Humboldt squid, we need to try things on a broad scale. We need to try experiments, trials, prototypes, gather data, collect wild ideas, observe – and hasten evolution because we do not have thousands of years. The authorities have been hesitant to encourage such experiments due to growing concern over public safety. 

When an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber struck and killed Elaine Herzberg in March 2018, it was believed to be the first recorded pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving vehicle. It was eerily reminiscent of the first recorded case of a pedestrian killed in a collision with a motor car back in 1896 when Bridget Driscoll was tragically struck by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company. The coroner, Percy Morrison, said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.” 

What we are faced with today is the opportunity to prevent these deaths going forward. In the 124 years since Bridget Driscoll’s death, automakers and governments have worked to improve road safety and transportation technology for all. While we haven’t perfected autonomous vehicles yet, it’s not completely out of reach to imagine a future 124 years from now where there are zero road fatalities.

If authorities don’t make room for the trials and experiments necessary for innovation, we will needlessly get trapped in a cyclical history of tragedy.  Evolution is critical, even if it’s uncomfortable. And thanks to the Humboldt Squid, we have an existing model to follow.

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