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RoboRoach Kickstarter Brings Up the Ethics of Experimenting on Bugs

By Wesley Fenlon

The RoboRoach cyborg could be a powerful learning tool, even if its origins raise some ethical issues.

The RoboRoach isn't quite as terrifying as it sounds. No, it's not a giant robotic roach or a monster from a Godzilla movie--it's a normal-size roach turned into a cyborg. That's right: a cyborg roach, conceived to teach kids about neuroscience and now the star of a Kickstarter campaign from Backyard Brains. They're calling it the world's first commercially available cyborg.

Once outfitted with its cyborg components, a RoboRoach can be controlled via a simple smartphone app--tapping left or right on the app will send a signal to the roach, causing it to change directions and go where you tell it.

The way your normal everyday cockroach becomes a cyborgian tool of science has introduced a bit of controversy into Backyard Brains' campaign. Wired UK writes that Backyard Brains is ignoring ethics in its program and delivers a fair assessment of what the Kickstarter has to offer. Wired admits that biohackers and teachers and students could learn a great deal from the RoboRoach, and that it could even give the kids who roast ants with a magnifying glass a more constructive outlet for interacting with insects.

But then there's the bad stuff: Everything that happens to a NormalRoach to turn it into a RoboRoach. Wired UK writes:

To give a rough idea, the insect is first anaesthetised by being plunged in ice water. Then, because they're covered in a seriously inconvenient (for the purposes of this experiment) waxy substance (it keeps them hydrated and is what makes the little suckers so slippery) the scientist must sand down its pronotum (a plate-like cover on the insect's thorax). The connector, with its three electrodes, is then superglued onto the pronotum. One wing is pinned aside with silly putty, and a needle used to pierce the exoskeleton at the thorax for one of the wires to be fed through. This is superglued in place, before the cockroach is plunged back into the ice water to prevent any recovery, after which the antenna are almost completely snipped off and the electrodes glued into the hollow that's left. Hot glue is used to "temporarily place" the backpack on once the cockroach is recovered and alert (by some time the next day).

Since most people crush roaches with a shoe on sight, roach rights activists aren't likely to boycott the RoboRoach. Still, there's something a little icky about the thought of holding a roach down and snipping off its antennae. For their part, Backyard Brains say that RoboRoach is one way to get people talking about controlling animal behavior. Maybe most people are fine when it's a roach, but what about a mouse? Or a dog?

Wired also points out that clinical studies involving animals are often no less cruel, and the ends--medical benefits for humans--often justify the means. RoboRoach's creators hope to draw more people into the field of neuroscience to better understand the human brain and neurological diseases. And if you kick in $150 to the Kickstarter, your RoboRoach kit comes with a dozen "well behaved and well trained" cockroaches.