Last year, when I took part in the Dagstuhl workshop on Vocal Interactivity in-and-between Humans, Animals and Robots, we had a brainstorming session, fantasising about how advanced robots might help us with animal behaviour research. "Spy" animals, if you will. Imagine a robot bird or a robot chimp, living as part of an ecosystem, but giving us the ability to modify its behaviour and study what happens. If you could send a spy to live among a group of animals, sharing food, communicating, collaborating, imagine how much you could learn about those animals!
So it particularly makes me smile to see the BBC nature doc Spy in the Wild, in which they've... gone there and done it already.
--- Well, not quite. It's a great documentary, some really astounding footage that makes you think again about what animals' inner lives are like. They use animatronic "spy" animals with film cameras in, which let them get up very close, to film from the middle of an animal's social group. These aren't autonomous robots though, they're remotely operated, and they're not capable of the full range of an animal's behaviours. They're pretty capable though: in order both to blend in and to interact, the spies can do things such as adopt submissive body language - crouching, ear movements, mouth movements, etc. And...
...some of them vocalise too. Yes there's some vocal interaction between animals and (human-piloted) robots. The vocal interaction is at a pretty simple level, it seems some of the robots have one or two pre-recorded calls built in and triggered by the operator, but it's interesting to see some occasional vocal back-and-forth between the animals and their electrical counterparts.
There are obviously some limitations. The spies generally can't move fast or dramatically. The spy birds can't fly. But - maybe soon?
In the mean time, watch the programme, it has loads of great moments caught on film.