Controlling the Minds of Cockroaches Using Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 26 2013 1:10 PM

Controlling the Minds of Cockroaches Using Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect

A biobot cockroach

Photo courtesy iBionicS Lab/NCSU

Last fall, you were introduced to real, live, remote-controlled cockroaches. Well, the insect hackers at the North Carolina State University are at it again, this time with a Microsoft Kinect and a software program that can boss the bugs around without human input. In other words, we have successfully coopted cockroach sovereignty—and given it to the machines.

The goal is to ultimately use this kind of technology to create armies of biobots capable of things bio-inspired robots can only dream of. Which is to say, if we programmed bio-inspired robots to dream.


There may be huge advantages to focusing on biobots over bio-inspired robots. (A biobot is a living creature that’s been hacked, while a bio-inspired robot is a machine built to resemble a living creature.) For example, Harvard’s Wyss Institute recently unveiled some impossibly small robots capable of flight. But any iteration of artificial insect will be limited to abilities programmed by its human makers. In contrast, when you start with a living insect, you can hijack all of its natural abilities, like running, jumping, flying, sensing its surroundings, and ruining a good bowl of soup. The researchers say their roaches could one day be used to map environments and locate victims in areas where it isn’t safe to send a human—like collapsed buildings and areas contaminated by poison gas, radiation, or any of the various things you’d find in a summer blockbuster. They may even be able to attach microphones and speakers so rescuers could communicate with survivors. (Basically, a Gandalf and the moth type situation. #nerdalert)

In a paper to be presented next week at the Remote Controlled Insect Biobots Minisymposium, the researchers, who received funding from the National Science Foundation's CyberPhysical Systems Program, show how they’ve anticipated the need to put biobot swarms on autopilot. Previous research by NC State had shown it was possible to control a cockroach’s movements by wiring into its antennae and cerci, or abdominal sensory organs. Electrical impulses get the bugs to move in a certain direction by tricking them into thinking there’s a wall to the left or right, or a threat approaching from behind.

Now, instead of those impulses being controlled remotely by a human, they’re tapped into the software program, which takes cues from the Xbox Kinect’s tracking data. If the cockroach veers away from the target, the Kinect observes the change and relays it to the software, which in turn makes a split-second decision about how much correctional impulse should be sent to the roach. Longer stimulation is designed to produce more drastic correction, just like pulling hard on a steering wheel.

The results are pretty impressive. Their previous work with remote control yielded only about a 10 percent success rate, but the new technology has bumped them up to 27 percent. You can see it for yourself below with a roach that really seems to want nothing in the world but to turn right.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Alper Bozkurt, tells me that the Kinect brings some other advantages to the process, like being able to control the roaches in the dark. It also helps them steer. “Each insect biobot is unique due to the small variance of electrode positioning in tissue as well as natural differences in insect anatomy,” said Bozkurt. “We use Kinect as a calibration platform to automatically assess our steering capability on each roach and fine tune it.”

If you’re at all concerned about the ethics of brain control, you can at least rest assured that Bozkurt and his team chose cockroaches for the insect’s lack of pain receptors. (Moths also meet this specification.) Bozkurt calls their research “the next level of our efforts on domesticating insects,” same as we’ve done with bees for their honey and pollination, worms for their silk, and larger animals like horses and oxen for their speed and strength. “So what we are working on is a cyberphysical way to domesticate the insects to benefit from their muscle power,” he said.

And when you put it that way, I suppose I’d rather be a cockroach with an electrode backpack than a pig in a pen.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.