These iPhone-Controlled Cyborg Cockroaches Are Stirring Quite the Ethics Debate

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Oct. 12 2013 10:56 AM

iPhone-Controlled Cyborg Cockroaches Are Stirring up an Ethics Debate

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Kickstarter/GageMarzullo

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

By Kelly Dickerson

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You no longer have to be a graduate student or doctor to study neuroscience.

According to an article in Science Now, a new do-it-yourself project, called the RoboRoach, allows kids as young as 10 to create their own cyborg cockroach and control its movement. The $99 kits come with live cockroaches, a surgical kit, and tiny electronic hardware pieces.

The goal behind these RoboRoach kits is to get kids interested in neuroscience research and encourage them to pursue a career in the field. Cockroaches and humans have neurons that function in a similar way, so when you observe the cockroach responding to the signal from your phone, you are also seeing how human neurons respond to a signal. But some scientists and bioethicists are concerned this new product is unethical and may be encouraging cruel treatment of animals.

The RoboRoach made its debut at the TEDx conference in Detroit on Oct. 2. Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, the co-founders of Backyard Brains, a small startup company of scientists and engineers, created the tiny backpack the cockroach wears and designed the kit that allows the user to attach all the pieces themselves. They funded the project with a Kickstarter, and the cyborg cockroach will be commercially available starting in November.

How the cyborg cockroaches are created

The cockroaches are placed in ice water as a kind of crude anesthetic. Then the kids are instructed to sand down a patch of shell on the cockroach's head and superglue electrodes to the newly smooth area. Next, a groundwire is stuck into the cockroach's thorax—the area right between its neck and stomach. Finally, the kids must carefully trim the antennae and stick small silver electrodes in them that will receive the signal from the circuit that attaches to the cockroach's back and resembles a tiny backpack.

Swiping the screen of a smartphone controls the RoboRoach's movement.

Amateur neuroscientists can steer the cockroach left and right after the surgery. Their movements are controlled by electrodes in their antennae, and they respond to directions from a wireless signal sent from a smartphone. The tiny backpack the cockroach wears communicates directly with its neurons by sending small electrical pulses.

After a few minutes, the cockroach will adapt to its cyborg fixture and will stop responding to the signals.

An ethical dilemma

Gage told Science Now that the insects feel little pain during the surgery. The kit explains how to take care of any wounds the cockroach might get during the attachment, and after the kids are done experimenting, the backpack can be removed and the cockroach can "retire" and still do regular cockroach things like eat and mate.

However, other scientists see these kits as a serious violation of basic ethics.

Jonathan Balcombe from the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C. told Science Now that “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?”

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick compared the cyborg cockroaches to the Imperius Curse from the Harry Potter novels. He told Science Now that he isn't calling for an outright ban of the product, but still finds it unpleasant.

Normally, cockroaches use their antennae as feelers to navigate around any object that might be blocking their path. But when their antennae are trimmed and electrodes are stuck in, they lose that natural sensing ability and it is replaced with an electric impulse sent from a phone. There is little explanation on the Kickstarter page of any lasting effects this surgery has on the cockroaches.

Animal experimentation is fairly common and can be useful, especially in neuroscience where it is crucial to study a live brain to observe and understand the signaling that goes on between neurons and the rest of the body. Understanding the brain and the way neuron signaling works is the only way that treatments and cures for neurological diseases, like Parkinson's disease, will be discovered.

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