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Science on Purpose: The robo-roach and its Kafkaesque implications

This at-home science kit lets you build a cybernetic organism by surgically adding a circuit board controller to a cockroach’s back, then wirelessly controlling it via your iPhone.



By Christopher DeMarcus (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 6, 2013


The RoboRoach is your own personal insect cyborg. This at-home science kit lets you build a cybernetic organism by surgically adding a circuit board controller to a cockroach’s back, then wirelessly controlling it via your iPhone.

Backward Brains makes and sells the kits. Based out of Ann Arbor, USA, the company racked up $12,000 of startup cash on Kickstarter. Crowd-sourcing contributors now have their very own neuroscience experiment.

“Following a brief surgery you perform on the cockroach to attach the silver electrodes to the antenna, you can attach the backpack to the roach and control its movement for a few minutes before the cockroach adapts.” says Backward Brains founder Greg Gage.

The backpack that you attach to the roach to control it turns the bug into a tiny little toy that you can drive around the room. Think micro-machines meets the Terminator. After you remove the backpack, the roach “forgets” the effect it had on him, and he returns to a normal state.

But this isn’t just a toy.

“I’m a neuroscientist and that means I had to go to grad school for five years just to ask questions about the brain. You don’t have to get a PhD in astronomy to get a telescope and study the sky,” Cage said at a TED talk in June. Cage wants to put neuroscience experiments in the hands of at-home hobbyists.

“This is not just a gimmick, the technique is the same as that used to treat Parkinson’s disease and in cochlear implants,” Cage told BBC News. “The point of the project is to create a tool to learn about how our brain works.”

The signal that is transmitted to the roach is a series of electrical pulses, mimicking the same signals that are sent from the insect’s antenna. The pattern and bandwidth of these pulses can be changed inside the smart-phone program. The main goal of the project is to get experimenters to catalogue how long it takes the roach to adapt to the pulse settings.

Students can use music from their iPods to modify the pulses sent to the bug’s head, creating a randomizing or musical effect to retain control over the bug’s brain.

The democratization of these types of experiments has allowed anyone to have access to his or her own brain laboratory. The experiments are helping raise a whole new generation of neuroscientists.

But some question the ethics of turning an insect into a toy. Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick told Science magazine that the kits “give you a way of playing with living things” that she finds “unpleasant.”

“Cockroaches can haul 20 times their own weight. That’s plenty of strength for a cyborg backpack – and fancy accessories,” reported Popular Science’s Amanda Schypak. So, we don’t have to worry about weighing the brawny bug down.

However, the backpack controller is attached to the antennae of the little cucaracha. For a human, this would be like having iPod headphones glued to your ears, with a commanding signal, “Left, right, left!” The electric pulses from the backpack use the antennae as a biological wire to send instructions. This has brought up a popular ethics question about the RoboRoach: If you were a roach, would you rather be crushed or driven around by a kid’s iPhone?

Whatever side of the ethical line you fall on, the cyborg roaches are gaining popularity. Maybe we’ll get that much needed sequel to Joe’s Apartment, J-Apartment 2: Revenge of the Roach.

The real hope is that the neuroscience behind RoboRoach’s brain stimulation method may lead to treatments for Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. Electroshock therapy for roaches could teach us more more about the effects of electrical cycles on the brain.

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