The guys at BackyardBrains certainly have a sense of humor. They know that their work, which focuses on reading and manipulating the brain waves of insects, can be seen as anything from cruel to frivolous. Their new Kickstarter project addresses this right out of the gate: are they putting men on Mars, or curing cancer? No, they’re just letting kids and adults drive real, live cockroaches around like remote control cars. Some people say it’s unethical to do use a living creature this way. Their response?Nah.
RoboRoach is a new Kickstarter project that aims to take the now months-old idea of a remote controlled cockroach (ancient, by today’s standards) and put it in the hands of the public. All you’ll need, they say, is their small kit, a live cockroach, and some time. The smallest investment to actually get you a kit is $100, though the actual retail version could vary from this somewhat. I can’t envision a future in which this does not pass its rather paltry $10,000 funding goal, so if you think you’ll buy one of these you probably want to jump on board now, if only for the swag that comes with it.
The system will work thanks to a set of small electrodes placed inside the insect’s antennae. This is the only vague part of the project, since BackyardBrains states that inserting the electrodes will require a short surgery under anesthesia — yet they don’t seem to offer this service themselves. Such delicate work would seem to require more than just an electrode plus “time,” but the team is clearly very dedicated to bringing accessible experiments to a general audience. The procedure is presumably easy enough for anyone to perform.
The electrode device has a small, attached port that sits on the roach’s back; when you wish to drive it around, you simply attach the other major component of the RoboRoach kit: a backpack unit that does all the actual sending, receiving, and interpreting of signals. Grab your roach, plug it in, and away you go.
The cockroach is controlled with an app, available for iOS and Android, which sends the backpack your simple input commands. The technology takes advantage of the fact that cockroaches use their antennae for direct physical sensing of their environment. When the backpack sends the proper signal to the antennae, the roach gets the feeling that it has just bumped into wall on the appropriate side — and so, it turns.
This is a fairly crude form of control, but it does work. The technique, called microstimulation, apparently causes no pain, and the roach can even learn to ignore it, given enough time. BackyardBrains claims that cockroaches have a known fear response which they do not display when receiving the backpack commands. No word on whether they display it during or after their surgery, however.