If you spent any time on social media in mid-October 2016, you may have witnessed the trending tragedy surrounding the death of the Great Barrier Reef, the ancient coral reef ecosystem on the eastern coast of Australia that is so massive it can be seen from outer space. The story of the coral reef’s death originated in an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef published in Outside Magazine. The first sentence of the article reads:
“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.”
Social media responded in outcry, a general response that can attributed to most people only seeing the headline but not taking time to read the “obituary”. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef cannot die, due to it not being a living entity, but the many corals that occupy it can. And, while many of its corals have died, through the process of coral bleaching, an event triggered by warming water temperatures that whitens coral by it expelling its algae, there is still enough coral alive for the immense ecosystem to recover.
Despite its longevity and survival, however, the coral reef is in danger. The piece in Outside was not intended to be taken literally, but to be more of a call to action to save this ecosystem from completely dying out. The Great Barrier Reef covers more than 300,000 square kilometers and consists of more than 3,000 reefs, 600 islands, and 300 coral cays. This coral reef is the home to 1625 fish species, 3000 mollusk species, 630 echinoderm species, 14 sea snake species, 215 seabird species, and 6 sea turtle species, among other types of marine life.
Now, with 93 percent of the reef affected by bleaching, resulting from rising temperatures attributed to climate change and poor-water quality from land-based runoff, about one-third of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is currently dead, and the rest is in the process of dying. Additional factors like illegal fishing and coastal development increase the dangers to the biodiverse area, and they together could very well mark an end to the ancient ecosystem and its many animal inhabitants in the near future, unless greater efforts are made to prevent them.
One such effort has been in effect since early 2016: artificially intelligent killer robots.
Currently, just one marine terminator is being used, and it is tasked with eliminating the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) that overpopulate the Great Barrier Reef. This starfish species naturally resides within coral reef ecosystems, where it feeds on coral polyps. Generally, this makes the crown-of-thorns starfish an essential part of the ecosystem, since it controls the coral population. However, as seen with the Great Barrier Reef, if its numbers swell to unstable amounts, the result can be disastrous.
At the large coral reef, the COTS outbreak is connected to phytoplankton booms, events caused by nutrient enrichment from agricultural fertilizer runoff and overfishing of the starfish’s predators. With a high abundance of phytoplankton and little to no predators, the COTS larvae have plentiful food resources without any threats, and, as adults, the resulting many COTS will unsustainably feed on the coral polyps, halting their growth.
To combat this, the COTSbot, developed by robotics researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, serves the purpose of killing the COTS through lethal injection. This autonomous vehicle follows a preprogrammed path, moving along the Great Barrier Reef, while carefully avoiding contact with the precious coral. Its cameras scan for the starfish, its artificial intelligence is able to process in real time the presence of COTS, and it lowers its pneumatic arm to apply to injection. The poison consists of bile salts, which are toxic to the starfish and kill it in within 24 hours. The COTSbot can carry enough poison to inject 200 starfish during a single 4-8 hour underwater trip.
This approach is certainly aggressive, but, despite using intelligent robots, it does bear some similarity with practices used to curb overpopulated or invasive animal species. For example, lionfish are an invasive fish species found off the Eastern United States, where they, as apex predators, have been unsustainably killing other marine animals for several decades. In response, different institutions have initiated rewards for killing lionfish, such as the former Gulf Coast Research Laboratory Lionfish Reward Program of $5 each.
However, the COTSbot is a literal killing machine. And, it might be frightening to some people to think that we are programming AI robots with the simple cold intent of killing, but the machines are, in fact, a solution to this problem.
That being said, while the existence of the COTSbot, and other machines like it, is an answer to the call to action for saving the Great Barrier Reef, we shouldn’t overlook the reason why the ecological marvel is in danger in the first place. Human society, either directly or indirectly, is causing the different dangers brought onto the Great Barrier Reef through overfishing and pollution. While robots can take care of our problems for us, it might be necessary to solve the root of the issue itself.