“Control the movements of a live cockroach from your own mobile device! This is the world’s first commercially available cyborg!”
That is the tag line that has set the tech world abuzz: do-it-yourself cyborg cockroaches that can be controlled via a smartphone, designed to teach budding young neuroscientists the intricacies of the scientific field. Yet, critics say the device adds up to little more than animal cruelty.
Dubbed “RoboRoach,” the so called cyborg was the main feature of a recent TEDx talk hosted by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, the co-founders of RoboRoach HQ, Backyard Brains. Together, the team at Backyard Brains aim to make everyone a neuroscientist by providing affordable neuroscience kits to students of all ages. The company received funding for this particular project through a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Watch a video of the RoboRoach set-up at an earlier testing phase below:
The most recent system works on the same principle as above, using electrodes that feed directly into the roach’s antennae, delivering controlled stimulation to make the cockroach think it has encountered an obstacle. However, the new set-up exploits the Bluetooth technology in smartphones to control the stimulation, allowing the operator to direct the roach left or right as they so choose. Setting this up, however, takes some work, and that is where the learning element is meant to come in.
In order to create their own “cyborg cockroach” students are sent a series of instructions in their RoboRoach kit. They are instructed to douse the cockroach in ice water to anesthetize it. They then sand down an area of shell on the roach’s head so that they can superglue the necessary electrodes in place. A groundwire must then be inserted into the body of the roach. The roach’s antennae are then trimmed, and the silver electrodes inserted which will receive impulses from the circuit unit or “backpack” stuck to the roach’s back.
This kit, complete with backpack unit, electrodes and cockroach, will be on the market for $99.99 and will ship across the United States starting next month.
There’s just one small ethical issue that critics can’t help but point out: the setup involves surgery on the cockroach in question as well as the use of an electric stimuli. We’ll deal with the latter point first. The makers point out that the reported 100-500 microamps used to control the roach appears to present little discomfort to the roach, and the roach quickly adapts.
Designer Marzullo has brushed off the concerns over this aspect of the system as misguided, likening it to a bridle: “We sometimes get emails calling us psychopaths and encouraging the harm of animals,” he says. “If we had invented the bridle to steer the horse, some people would think that’s harmful controlling of animals. It also goes to show how little most people know about how neurons function because they never experimented with this in high school. It’s a fear of the unknown.”
The analogy of the bridle seems to fall down however in that the horse does not have to be intentionally cut in order to fit the bridle.
Regardless, Backyard Brains apparently feels justified as to the scientific merits of this venture. Indeed, other experiments detailed on the website also include harvesting two legs from a cockroach for the purpose of demonstrating the basic principles of neuroprosthetics. As Backyard Brains’ “Ethics” section on their website shows, it isn’t shy about testing on animals and believes it is within the bounds of acceptable educational practice to do so. They do note however that they anesthetize the roaches and that all roaches that have been used to test this product have not been killed but have been allowed to live out their remaining days in a roach farm.
However, critics have not been satisfied by this response. They point out that, no matter the educational value, there are wider ethical concerns about this kit. For one, it encourages children as young as ten to carry out damaging surgical procedures on living creatures. While RoboRoach’s makers insists that all dispatched kits have so far been used responsibly, there does appear a high chance for abuse.
Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C., is quoted as saying, “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?”
Chiefly, however, the main criticism is that this isn‘t needed, and no matter how well intended, RoboRoach really could be used for nothing more than entertainment.
As such, PETA has slammed the RoboRoach, saying, ”To be disrespectful of life forms because they are small and we do not fully understand them or appreciate their place in the larger scheme of things is wrong. It is retrogressive and morally dubious.”
The makers of RoboRoach are able to hide behind the often used shield that animal testing can be justified in that it helps advance human medical knowledge; As this is a non-lethal practice (at least when carried out by the RoboRoach creators) that is geared at enticing young people to enter the scientific field, they seem to see little difference between the two. They even warn against anthropomorphising the roaches.
Yet for those who find animal testing and its hotly contested usefulness morally untenable, RoboRoach will seem like objectification and even mutilation of another living creature to entice scientific curiosity or at worst, simply to provide disgusting entertainment because, no matter what RoboRoach’s makers may have designed the kit for, once it hits the market it will be out of their hands.
Image credit: Thinkstock.