Artificial Flight and Other Myths
a reasoned examination of A.F. by top birds
Over the past sixty years, our most impressive developments have undoubtedly been within the industry of automation, and many of our fellow birds believe the next inevitable step will involve significant advancements in the field of Artificial Flight. While residing currently in the realm of science fiction, true powered, artificial flying mechanisms may be a reality within fifty years. Or so the futurists would have us believe. Despite the current media buzz surrounding the prospect of A.F., a critical examination of even the most basic facts can dismiss the notion of true artificial flight as not much more than fantasy.
We can start with a loose definition of flight. While no two bird scientists or philosophers can agree on the specifics, there is still a common, intuitive understanding of what true flight is: powered, feathered locomotion through the air through the use of flapping wings. While other flight-like phenomena exist in nature (via bats and insects), no bird with even a reasonable education would consider these creatures true fliers, as they lack one or more key elements. And, while some birds are unfortunately born handicapped (penguins, ostriches, etc.), they still possess the (albeit undeveloped) gene for flight, and it is indeed flight that defines the modern bird.
This is flight in the natural world, the product of millions of years of evolution, and not a phenomenon easily replicated. Current A.F. is limited to unpowered gliding; a technical marvel, but nowhere near the sophistication of a bird. Gliding simplifies our lives, and no bird (including myself) would discourage advancing this field, but it is a far cry from synthesizing the millions of cells within the wing alone to achieve Strong A.F. Strong A.F., as it is defined by researchers, is any artificial flier that is capable of passing the Tern Test (developed by A.F. pioneer Alan Tern), which involves convincing an average bird that the artificial flier is in fact a flying bird.
Now we know the goal, but what about the technical hurdles? Our visions of the bird wing are becoming more accurate, it’s true, and soon we may have a full model of every muscle, bone and sinew, but even this is merely information. There’s never been a realistic timetable of how long it would take to replicate even a portion of the wing, whether through biology, engineering or otherwise. And even the most optimistic birds have yet to explain how we plan to accurately rebuild the delicate array of feathers that are essential to flight. Do not misinterpret this pessimism as cynicism, mind you, as I do believe these studies are worthwhile, as we will learn more about ourselves and what it means to be a bird. Replicating birddom, though, is almost definitely out of our reach.
Even if we were capable of completely achieving the above, how would we ever know if it was a true bird? Where does flight really reside? We may build a functioning, flapping wing, but what if the essence of flight is deeper, hidden within the cells or elsewhere? We would only succeed in making a hollow doll that only gives the appearance of flight. If this is the end result, is it a worthwhile investment of our time and resources?
There are religious birds who believe God made Bird in His own image, and while I do not share in most of these beliefs, I do think there’s something to be said about the motivation behind creating Strong A.F. Perhaps, as we are the only creatures on Earth capable of flight, we want to push forward past our current capabilities, perhaps even augmenting our own flying capacities if independent A.F. is an impossibility. This could be interpreted as noble, but I would argue that there’s very little utility in replicating what nature has essentially perfected. Why spend millions on an artificial flier when there are so many birds out of work? Many weaker fliers have already lost their jobs to gliders; is it wise to rush to make ourselves obsolete? A.F. research may unlock some hidden mystery about ourselves, and it may make the lives of some more comfortable, but at best, true Strong A.F. is a pipe dream and at worst a challenge to what it means to be a bird.
Roger Puffin, PhD
Professor of Sleeping with One Leg Up,
Massachusetts Institute of Flying