April 3, 2014 | 1
BROOKLYN—It wasn’t hard to name Lil Wayne. He actually volunteered to take the rapper’s moniker.
On April 2, Frank Grasso, director of the Biomemetic and Cognitive Robotics Lab at Brooklyn College, showed me around his lab spaces—from where they build mobile robots to where they keep their axolotls and fiddler crabs to the crown jewel: his wall of octopus tanks.
They had recently welcomed their 12th class of octopus residents: eight two-spot octopuses (Octopus bimaculoides). Each new class all receives names—suggested and then voted on by Grasso’s students—starting with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. So this spring, they are on the L’s.
Grasso oversees a vast range of projects stretching from the behavior of Argentinian parrot populations in Brooklyn to adaptive robots. And, of course, octopuses. His work with animals might seem far removed from building robots, but the two begin to intertwine in exciting ways. Unlike the team in Italy that is focused on building a robot octopus to perform tasks for us humans, Grasso’s work uses robotics as a way to look back at the animals and, hopefully, gain insights about their brains and bodies.
After I met Grasso in his home-base office space on the fourth floor of the sprawling mid-century social sciences building, we peaked into the dry lab where his team tinkers with mobile, learning robots. Just a door away from that was a room that smelled not unlike a household aquarium. This was his group’s small wet lab.
There, between shelves of solitary axolotls and a tank of hiding fiddler crabs was a low subdivided tank filled with small white plastic boxes. In each box, Grasso showed me, was a single octopus egg. He and his team, as a side project, are studying ways they might be able to rear their octopuses in the lab. Currently most all octopuses must be caught in the wild, meaning little control for age or experience—and a constant drain on wild populations. This research bottleneck has long been a quest for researches who study these cannibalistic cephalopods. Grasso opened one container up for me to see. An oblong octopus egg stuck to the side of it, slowly growing a baby bimaculoides. Whether this batch will hatch remains to be seen.
Across the quad, we entered the building that houses the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center on its ground floor. Through a couple of sets of doors was a massive warehouselike space, humming with the many pumps required to keep fish and mollusks alive in this land-bound lab.
On a far wall, past a barrel of flounder and low tanks of singing midshipmen fish, past a reservoir of manufactured sea water and empty bins awaiting new nautiluses, was the wall of small octopus tanks. Eight tanks held the newly arrived class of young two-spotted octopuses, although only a few were hanging out outside of their PVC pipe homes. One peered out of its pipe with just one eye—seeming to watch us. We had caught them right at dusk, Grasso explained, between their two more active periods in the afternoon and early evening.
These octopuses will only live for another seven months or so. But during that short time, they will learn to go through mazes, help researchers understand the best way to use anesthesia on these advanced cephalopods, and, eventually, after their natural death, provide their brains and beaks to science for analysis. Getting octopuses is not easy, Grasso noted. These specimens came all the way from the coast of California. “They get gobbled up from the sea and get put into a FedEx package,” before getting shipped across country and arriving at CUNY Brooklyn. Given all of that work—and their short, year-long lifespan, “they’re kind of precious,” he said.
For our visit, Grasso had brought with him four laminated nameplates for the already-chosen L names. He offered me the honor of choosing the octopus to get the first name: Lil Wayne.
I looked down the bottom row of tanks. The first one was nowhere to be seen. The second one was hunkered in a ball in the corner of the tank. The third one, however, was suctioned to the front of its tank, and, as I looked at it, stretched a single one of its arms up vertically against the plastic wall.
That was going to be Lil Wayne. And he has a busy—if short—career ahead of him.
As a parting gesture, he flashed his glowing blue ring at me and then jetted off the side of the tank to retire, out of the bright lights.
To learn more about octopus robots, check out Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea. Or join me, Frank Grasso and other experts, Thursday, April 3, at 7pm for a discussion with octopus behavior, intelligence and robotics experts at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen