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This robot follows the fish. | Image: @ronen_segev on Twitter

Something interesting swam across my Twitter feed recently: a video of a goldfish that seemed to be controlling a robotic fish tank with wheels, with the contraption following the direction the fish was swimming. “Oh no,” I thought. “They gave this goldfish a robot, and now it’s unstoppable.”

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like it was done as a part of some evil plot. The goldfish mech suit was posted by Ronen Segev, a researcher on a team that was looking into how animals navigate. Helpfully, Segev links to a full research paper in the Twitter thread, which should offer more insight into the project.

The fish were tasked to “drive” the vehicle towards a visual target in the terrestrial environment, which was observable through the walls of the tank. Indeed, the goldfish were able to explore the terrestrial environment, all while avoiding dead-ends and correcting inaccuracies. pic.twitter.com/RxPuzFbxkE

— Ronen Segev (@ronen_segev) January 3, 2022

The paper is officially titled “From fish out of water to new insights on navigation mechanisms in animals,” and its abstract describes why the researchers “trained goldfish to use a Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV).” They wanted to test its ability to do something familiar, navigating towards a target in an unfamiliar environment — in this case, land. To do this, the researchers tracked the fish’s movements with LIDAR, which let it “drive” towards a target that it could see outside of its tank.

Returning to the Twitter thread, though, a comment caught my eye — no, not the joke about The Umbrella Academy’s Carmichael, though it did get a laugh out of me. It was a comment about how someone else had built a very similar contraption. In 2014, Studio diip released a video called Fish on Wheels, which was meant to show off computer vision tech. If you’ve watched Segev’s video, Fish on Wheels will seem pretty familiar; there’s a fish tank on wheels with a sensor that tracks the fish’s movement to steer the vehicle. (Can we call it a vehicle? Sure, why not.) Basically, Fish on Wheels is the same idea but built for a different reason.

That’s when I started falling down the rabbit hole. Looking into Fish on Wheels led me to a third goldfish Gundam, this one made as part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Build18 engineering festival, according to a video posted of the project in 2017. According to Interesting Engineering, the robot was built in three days by students who “decided it would be awesome if he [the fish, named Walter] could hang out with us!” You can see the result below.

And guess what — browsing a Reddit thread about that project unearthed yet another person who made robotic fish bowls. This one was a 2004 art installation by Ken Rinaldo called “Augmented Fish Reality.” It featured five robots controlled by betta fish and was “designed to explore interspecies and trans-species communication,” according to Rinaldo’s website. Are there examples from even further back that I haven’t found? How do people keep doing the same thing but seemingly for completely different reasons?

And after watching all these traveling fish, there’s one thing that I absolutely, desperately need to know: what would my cat do if he saw a goldfish rolling by in a robotic tank?

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