REMOTE CONTROL FOR BRAINS
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.
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