At the TEDx conference in Detroit last week, RoboRoach #12 scuttled across the exhibition floor, pursued not by an exterminator but by a gaggle of fascinated onlookers. Wearing a tiny backpack of microelectronics on its shell, the cockroach—a member of the Blaptica dubia species—zigzagged along the corridor in a twitchy fashion, its direction controlled by the brush of a finger against an iPhone touch screen (as seen in video above).
RoboRoach #12 and its brethren are billed as a do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment that allows students to create their own “cyborg” insects. The roach was the main feature of the TEDx talk by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of an educational company called Backyard Brains . After a summer Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to let them hone their insect creation, the pair used the Detroit presentation to show it off and announce that starting in November, the company will, for $99, begin shipping live cockroaches across the nation, accompanied by a microelectronic hardware and surgical kits geared toward students as young as 10 years old.
That news, however, hasn’t been greeted warmly by everyone. Gage and Marzullo, both trained as neuroscientists and engineers, say that the purpose of the project is to spur a “neuro-revolution” by inspiring more kids to join the fields when they grow up, but some critics say the project is sending the wrong message. "They encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools," says Michael Allen Fox, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.
“It’s kind of weird to control via your smartphone a living organism,” says William Newman, a presenter at TEDx and managing principal at the Newport Consulting Group, who got to play with a RoboRoach at the conference. At the same time, he says, he is pleased that the project will teach students about the neuroscience behind brain stimulation treatments that are being used to treat two of his friends with Parkinson’s disease.
The roaches’ movements to the right or left are controlled by electrodes that feed into their antennae and receive signals by remote control—via the Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones. To attach the device to the insect, students are instructed to douse the insect in ice water to “anesthetize” it, sand a patch of shell on its head so that the superglue and electrodes will stick, and then insert a groundwire into the insect’s thorax. Next, they must carefully trim the insect’s antennae, and insert silver electrodes into them. Ultimately, these wires receive electrical impulses from a circuit affixed to the insect’s back.
Gage says the roaches feel little pain from the stimulation, to which they quickly adapt. But the notion that the insects aren’t seriously harmed by having body parts cut off is “disingenuous,” says animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C. “If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?”
Gage says that in his experience, working carefully and closely with insects and other animals in experiments can sensitize students to the fact that roaches “are actually similar to us and have the same neurons that we have.” He also notes that the company doesn’t kill their own roaches after the experiments, but sends them to a “retirement” tank that the team calls Shady Acres. Although they may be missing legs or antennae, the insects tend to get on with their lives after the experiments, he says. “They do what they like to do: make babies, eat, and poop.”
“I try not to downplay the fact that in science we use animal models and a lot of times they are killed,” Gage says. “As scientists, we do this all the time, but it happens behind closed doors.” By following the surgical instructions, he says, all students learn that they have to care for the roaches—treating wounds by “putting a little Vaseline” on them, and minimizing suffering whenever possible. Still, Gage acknowledges, “we get a lot of e-mails telling us we’re teaching kids to be psychopaths.”
The RoboRoach “gives you a way of playing with living things,” like a short-lived version of the forbidden “Imperius Curse” in the Harry Potter novels, says bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York. He finds the product “unpleasant,” but adds that he won’t be calling for a boycott, either. “I’ll just be happy that I found a cleverly marketed consumer item that I am very happy not to own.”