Roboroach: cruel or educational?

Post date: Nov 9, 2013 1:09:48 PM

Quite often I notice that the most popular articles on the BBC website are articles about robots. For example, the most popular article on 9/11/2013 was this one:

RoboRoach in action

It will soon be possible to buy for less than $100 an electronic backpack to attach to a cockroach which will allow you to control the cockroach's movement using a mobile phone. The backpack communicates directly with neurons in the cockroach's antennae. The neurons convey information back to the insect's brain using electricity. The cockroach needs to undergo "short surgery under anaesthetic" in order to have wires placed inside the antennae.

Then the backpack can be placed on the insect and its movements controlled via a mobile phone or other device. The backpack communicates directly with neurons in the cockroach's antennae, allowing users to set the direction in which the insect moves. The backpack is detachable.Neuroscientist Greg Gage demonstrated what the insect can do during a TED (Technology, Engineering, Design) conference in June 2013. "This is not just a gimmick, the technique is the same as that used to treat Parkinson's disease and in cochlear implants," he told BBC News. "The point of the project is to create a tool to learn about how our brain works." He said that the team had thought a lot about the ethics of using insects in this way. "We are pretty certain that this doesn't impose pain on the insect and they still have free will because they adapt very quickly and ignore the stimulation," he said.

For the "electronic backpack" to work the cockroaches have to be placed in icy water to subdue them before sandpaper is used to remove the waxy coating on the shell of the insect's head. An electrode connector and electrodes are then glued on to the insect's body and a needle is used to poke a hole in their thorax in order to insert a wire. Their antennae are then cut and electrodes are inserted. A circuit is attached to their backs, and signals are received through a mobile phone app allowing users to control the cockroaches' movements to the left and to the right.

Critics say that the "electronic backpack" is cruel and subjects the insects to unnecessary stress.

Animal behaviour scientist Jonathan Balcombe has been quoted on US scientific websites as saying that the insects are harmed in the process. "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?" he is quoted as saying.

Likewise Queen's University philosophy Professor Michael Allen warned that the device will "encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools".

The Michigan-based company has even received emails saying the the backpack - known as Roboroach - "teaches kids to be psychopaths".

What do YOU think?

Read the BBC articles HERE and HERE.