Questioning the ethics of using a monkey to control a robotic arm

I’m opening this post to a discussion of using primates in research as seen in the following video.

Feel free to throw in your two cents… but let’s lay down some rules. In order to participate, first watch the video and then I’ll subjugate you to kindly read my previous posts on this subject matter. But for now, the video:

The posts you should read, or at least skim over, are these four posts on the ethics of using primates in research.

In this video we see how a monkey, looks like a macaque to me, is being used to conduct neurotech research. This type of research is a bit different from biomedical ones, but its applications are outstanding and the potential is nearly irrefutable.

There are many ‘pros’ to this video. As the commentators indicate, most of the these ‘pros’ reside on the fact that tests like these prove that humans without functioning limbs… be it due to paralysis or other forms of loss of function… can now use robotic arms to conduct daily tasks.

This research is very important, in my humble opinion. But it comes at a cost, and these costs are heavy moral ‘cons.’

See how the monkey is trapped in a box? Well it has to be, because I’m fairly sure sure it wouldn’t sit a second doing what the researchers wanted if it weren’t restrained. Also, there was some invasive surgery done. Electrodes are placed inside the monkey’s brain that interface between neurons and the computer and robotic arms… something that is more permanent than putting a monkey in a box for 30 minutes or so.

Knowing those basic pro’s and con’s, how do you feel about research like this? Should it be done in this manner? Do you see anything wrong with it? Do you feel this research is justifiable, given the potential benefits from it?

2 thoughts on “Questioning the ethics of using a monkey to control a robotic arm

  1. This video is fascinating. At first glance it does appear that the pros outweigh the cons (of the surgery and being in a box). I would be interested to see what daily life is like for the monkey after the trials. The bottom line is that I believe we can do some research in a responsible fashion… we just need to give the animals we study the credit they deserve.

    So I’ve been reviewing the videos and posts Kambiz recommended and naturally I have a few thoughts on the matter:

    It’s as if we are biting off more than we can chew. In our anthropogenic society we desperately want to learn more about disease and treatments, but we’re not necessarily giving the subjects (I don’t care to use the word participants in this sense) of these studies the committed care that they deserve. Follow-up care is just as important for non-human primates as it is for humans. Is there a reason, other than funding, that we see a compromise in that area?

    We have IACUCs in place, but clearly that’s not always enough. It’s funny that a student’s project to perform non-invasive behavioral research on dogs in shelters can have the greatest difficulty being approved by an IACUC, yet we are seeing videos like this surface.

    While we see horrific videos and hear of questionable practices regarding medical research in the news, there are many facilities that we just don’t hear about. They could just be flying under the radar, or they could be caring for their animals to the best of their ability (by working with behaviorists and professionals who’s sole job is to enrich the lives of these animals in more ways than simply tossing a boomer ball-like toy into an enclosure). It would be interesting to see a side-by-side comparison of “good” labs to “bad” labs.

    I also find it fascinating that scientists find research using mind-altering drugs on non-human primates acceptable given the mass opinion in the science world towards the animal mind. How can the non-human primate model be sufficient in that sort of work when non-human animals are not given credit to having self-awareness, thought, emotions, etc. Granted, I’m not in the know on the complete basis of research for the psychotropic study highlighted in Matt Rossell’s video, but it’s hard to believe that any of the effects examined in that study would be legitimate without that similarity between species.

    Side note — I had a professor who would regularly reference study concepts like switching the front and back legs (or rotating them in some way) of a lizard to see what would happen neurologically… would the brain be able to make the switch and tell the legs to work the other way? Most notably he would always pair the topic with a rationalization of the invasive study, “it’s ok, they don’t mind.”

  2. I’m completely opposed to research like this. It is important though, that such video records are available to the public.

    I just found this site. Kudos for the work and great images.

    Back to the importance of such videos: About four years ago I learned from an article in Scientific American that researchers at the Wisconsin primate center in Madison had videotaped their experiments on fear and anxiety with macaques.

    After four years of asking for the tapes under the state open records statutes with an attorney getting involved and a local newpaper, the university finally said that they had destroyed the tapes.

    They claimed that the tapes had been damaged in a steam pipe accident, but they didn’t destroy them until a year after the accident and, coincidentally I’m sure, 62 days following one of our requests (WI state law requires them to hold on to requested records for 60 days.)

    Worse, it turns out that they didn’t destroy only these tapes. They destroyed over 600 video tapes spanning almost two decades of research. Guess they didn’t want them showing up on YouTube.

    Even worse, much worse in one sense, this willfull destruction of fundamental and irreplaceable data has resulted in a complete lack of comment by the scientific community.

    The entire catalog is available here:

    An overview of the entire affair is available here:

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