A company in Michigan is crowdsourcing funds for what they say is the first commercially available cyborg - a cockroach fitted with a device that can control the bug's movement.
Backyard Brains, the outfit behind the RoboRoach, has been developing the project for years and are raising funds for the latest iteration of the project, which is operated through an app on a smartphone that sends a signal to the roach's antennae forcing it to move left or right.
Non-cyborg cockroaches navigate with their antennae, which contain neurons sensitive to touch and smell. For instance, when one of the long feelers touches a wall, the cockroach will turn in the opposite direction.
To get a cyborg roach to respond to commands, the inventors manipulated the roach's concept of sense, tricking the roach into thinking its antennae have touched a wall by stimulating them with an electrical pulse delivered by a "backpack" installed on the roach. On its Kickstarter page, the team says the microstimulation technology used in the cyborg roach system is the same neurotechnology used to treat Parkinson's Disease and is also used in Cochlear Implants.
But to gain control of the roaches movement requires a variety of semi-surgical procedures that have questionable ethics, including repeatedly dunking the live roach in ice water to put it in an "anesthetic" stupor while the surgery is under way. The procedure involves sanding down the roach's waxy coating on its thorax and supergluing an electrode onto the insect's head. A needle is used to pierce the roach exoskeleton to create a hole and tread a wire through and affix to the electrode. Also the roach's antennae are clipped and connected to the impulse-delivering wires.
Speaking to Wired, Backyard Brains co-founder Timothy Marsullo said that the cyborg roaches don't die from the procedure and typically one of the roaches is only used for about a week before being retired and allowed to live out the rest of its life (typically 2-3 years). He also said that the roach eventually adapts to the stimulation delivered by the backpack and learns to ignore it, meaning the current system could not be employed to hold the roach to a life of servitude.
On the Kickstarter page the developers say the intent of their cyborg roach project is to get people interested in neuroscience and biology.
"This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature."
Skip to 2:15 to see how to install the connector to the cockroach.
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