RE­MOTE CON­TROL FOR BRAINS

...AND BUGS?

Guru Magazine - - Contents - KIM LACEY• MIND GURU

At­tach elec­trodes to a cock­roach’s an­ten­nae, glue a cir­cuit board on its back and what do you get? A lot of very un­happy an­i­mal rights ac­tivists? Yep. And you also get the world’s first com­mer­cially-avail­able in­sect cy­borg. De­signed for kids. Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, finds out more on page 33.

“There’s an app for that” – re­mem­ber that tagline from a few years back? In a few short years, apps for seem­ingly ev­ery­thing have ma­te­ri­alised. But an app to con­trol minds would be a step too far, surely? Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, looks into the highly con­tro­ver­sial RoboRoach project and an app that can in­deed con­trol minds. Ad­mit­tedly, just the minds of cock­roaches, but still… A com­mon com­plaint in many house­holds is that there are too many re­mote con­trols (OK, so maybe just in mine). On more than one oc­ca­sion, I have thought, “why in the world do we have so many op­tions to turn on the TV?” Not once, how­ever, have I ever thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if I could con­trol the mind of a cock­roach... with my phone?” But for those of you who have been ir­ri­tated by the lack of in­sect mind re­mote con­trols (you’re out there some­where, right!?) then fret no more: the fu­ture has ar­rived.

RoboRoach: a bit like Robocop, but smaller. And with an­ten­nae.

It was while read­ing Emily An­thes’ Frankenstein’s Cat: Cud­dling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts (a great book, in­ci­den­tally) that I first dis­cov­ered RoboRoach. An­thes’ book maps out how biotech­nol­ogy is shap­ing the an­i­mal king­dom. You know, dol­phins with pros­thetic fins, bionic dogs, ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered fish that glow near pol­lu­tion… that sort of thing. She also in­tro­duces and ex­plains RoboRoach: the world’s first com­mer­cial in­sect cy­borg. RoboRoach took its in­spi­ra­tion from the se­cret ser­vices. DARPA (the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Project Agency) pre­vi­ously had in­ves­ti­gated the fea­si­bil­ity of ‘bug spies’, the idea be­ing that a re­mote- con­trolled in­sect could lit­er­ally be a “fly on the wall”, in­con- spic­u­ously snoop­ing on top-se­cret meet­ings while send­ing au­dio back to the in­fil­tra­tors. (Of course, no one ever sus­pects a cock­roach.) De­vel­op­ers, Back­yard Brains, de­cided to take this idea into the main­stream… and into the class­room. Based in Ann Ar­bor, Michi­gan, USA, Back­yard Brains de­vel­oped a mech­a­nism and a mo­bile app to con­duct ‘mind con­trol’ ex­per­i­ments at home. By at­tach­ing tiny elec­trodes on to a cock­roach’s two an­ten­nae – and by con­trol­ling the elec­trodes with the mo­bile app – arm­chair sci­en­tists can over­ride the in­sect’s move­ments. A cock­roach’s sim­ple brain uses its two an­ten­nae to help it find its way around. When one an­tenna strikes an ob­ject – a wall, say – it turns in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. The RoboRoach ‘back­pack’ is stuck onto the in­sect’s back and sends elec­tri­cal sig­nals di­rectly into each an­tenna, sim­i­lar to those that the roach’s nerves would nat­u­rally cre­ate. The back­pack com­mu­ni­cates with a ‘re­mote con­trol’ app via Blue­tooth, giv­ing any smart­phone user god-like pow­ers over how the roach walks: stim­u­late the left an­tenna and the roach turns right; stim­u­late the right and it turns left. Cool, right? Ex­cept the gross part is that you have to have cock­roaches walk­ing around your house.

A clever ex­per­i­ment or sick en­ter­tain­ment?

RoboRoach uses the same tech­nol­ogy as deep brain stimulation, a treat­ment for Parkin­son’s and other neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions. And so in its short com­mer­cial life, Roboroach has quickly be­come a pop­u­lar ed­u­ca­tional tool, help­ing ev­ery­day peo­ple un­der­stand sci­ence in a fun way. En­ter­tain­ment value not­with­stand­ing, how­ever, not ev­ery­one can stom­ach in­sect ex­per­i­ments and there are se­ri­ous eth­i­cal is­sues sur­round­ing the project. Soon af­ter RoboRoach’s re­lease, PETA (Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals) launched a very pub­lic at­tack, brand­ing the project “cruel”, “sadis­tic” and “tor­ture [to] bugs”. They for­malised their ob­jec­tions in a com­plaint to the Michi­gan at­tor­ney gen­eral and the Depart­ment of Li­cens­ing and Reg­u­la­tory Af­fairs, cit­ing the felony of “unau­tho­rised prac­tice of ve­teri­nary medicine (per­form­ing surgery on cock­roaches)”. On its web­site, Back­yard Brains lists and re­sponds to many of the crit­i­cisms they have re­ceived, in­clud­ing: “This … is sim­ply a show-off demo that abuses an­i­mals”; “An­i­mal ex­peri-

ments have no place in ed­u­ca­tional demon­stra­tions”; “You are caus­ing pain in the an­i­mals and that is in­hu­mane”; and a per­sonal fa­vorite, “You are ob­jec­ti­fy­ing the cock­roach.” Back­yard Brains ap­pear sym­pa­thetic to their crit­ics and ad­dress th­ese ma­jor eth­i­cal is­sues with clear ex­pla­na­tions and peer-re­viewed re­search. But this hasn’t been enough for Ap­ple or Google: af­ter in­tense lob­by­ing from PETA’s sup­port­ers, the Ap­ple App Store re­moved the RoboRoach app in Novem­ber 2013. In an email to RoboRoach sup­port­ers (full dis­clo­sure: I do­nated $5 so I’m on the email list), Back­yard Brains shared the fol­low­ing ex­pla­na­tion from Ap­ple: “[...] last night we re­ceived word via a phone call that the RoboRoach app would not be ap­proved be­cause we vi­o­lated the App Store Guide­lines 15.1: 15.1: Apps por­tray­ing re­al­is­tic im­ages of peo­ple or an­i­mals be­ing killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tor­tured or in­jured will be re­jected.” Soon af­ter, the Google Play An­droid Store also pulled the app from cir­cu­la­tion, thus leav­ing RoboRoach stalled for the time be­ing. You can still buy the kit, but with­out the app, it is a bug with­out a re­mote. (The only work­around at present is for An­droid phone users to down­load and in­stall the app di­rectly from the RoboRoach web­site, rather than via Google Play.) As an ed­u­ca­tor, I’m hop­ing RoboRoach makes a come­back. In the mean­time, I’ll set­tle for an app to steer spiders away from my apart­ment walls.

Ref­er­ences

An­thes, E. (2013) Frankenstein’s cat: Cud­dling up to biotech’s brave new beasts. New York: Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can. Back­yard Brains. Eth­i­cal Is­sues Re­gard­ing the Use of In­ver­te­brates in Ed­u­ca­tion. Up­date: RoboRoach – There’s NOT an App for That.

ABOVE: RoboRoach pack­ag­ing and

surgery kit.

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