Are Robo-Roaches Ethical?


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Hong Liang.

Somewhere in the halls of Texas A&M University there is a room plunged in complete darkness. All you can hear are hundreds of frantic legs scurrying in tandem.

The legs belong to a special breed of Latin American golden-shelled cockroach. The room belongs to entomologist (that’s an insect expert) Professor Bradley S. Vinson and mechanical engineer Professor Hong Liang. Together, the two created a project aimed at augmenting roaches with technology that allows them to be remote-controlled.

The aim is to maneuver the roaches into hard-to-reach areas, such as disaster zones and other emergency situations where spaces are too small for human traversing.

But is it okay to create cyber roaches only to save humans? What does the roach have to say about all of this?

Most likely nothing–which is why we took the time to chat with principal researcher Liang more about the details behind her intriguing project.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Explain the mechanics of controlling a cyborg roach. How does it work?

Hong Liang (HL): Well, you start by outfitting the cockroach with a small chip, which we call a “backpack.” You spray the roach with carbon dioxide to put it to sleep and then you use adhesive and grafting tape to apply the chip. Next you use an acupuncture needle to insert electrodes in the mini brain.

BTR: So the electrodes are what control the roach?

HL: The electrodes are placed in the ganglion, which is a group of neurons that control the roach’s front legs. Stimulate it on the left and they turn left; stimulate it on the right and they turn right. They respond to the electrical impulses.

BTR: And you control all of this using a remote controlled device?

HL: Yes, we have a wireless controlled device–just like little kids playing with video games (laughs). The remote sends a signal to the middle chip on the roach which regulates the impulse. The chip is about the size of a quarter, but right now the technology can be made much smaller than the ones we’re using.

We also can attach sensors, cameras, radio recorders–even infrared monitoring devices.

BTR: How long have you been working on this project?

HL: We started about 10 years ago, and we’ve been doing a lot to try and understand the cockroaches. We’ve progressed considerably; currently we have more than 50 percent accuracy in controlling them, which is quite significant.

Basically, we’re ready to get into the field and start doing something real with these cockroaches.

BTR: So what inspired the use of actual cockroaches, as opposed to something inorganic?

HL: When we have discussed this in the past, my colleague and entomology specialist Professor Vinson has suggested that cockroaches are everywhere; you can see them, you can touch them, and if not, you know that they’re hiding somewhere nearby.

So they’re very easy to get. Also, they’re also very easy to work with.

Naturally they are attracted to small, hard-to-reach places. If there is a disaster with piles of rubble, or a house has collapsed for instance, we can take advantage of their instincts to get inside those places that otherwise would be impossible. We can work with them together to do something useful.

BTR: But there must certainly be some cons to working with a live animal instead of a machine. They can get tired, and I’ve heard they’re also capable of warning one another about the danger–which can teach them to ignore the stimuli. How do you handle this?

HL: Yes, well you see the cockroaches are a very tough little species. Their recovery capability is phenomenal. For instance, if you cut a little tissue it will grow back completely. In fact, if there’s an adhesion and [if] the tissue is slightly damaged it will re-grow the very next day.

You basically won’t be able to damage them. Unless there is a fire going on, they’ll survive most other conditions we can conceive of.

So that’s really why they’re a good species to work with. We also give them a really good quality of life in our lab.

It’s also worth noting that they’re pack animals; they communicate with one another using their antennas. If they have a backpack on them they can adapt to it and then help ease the other cockroaches along.

BTR: There have been other researchers who have attached electrical devices to cockroaches, and even a company selling these roach “kits” to children. They’ve received some backlash from the Royal Society for Prevention of Animal Cruelty.

How do you feel about kids who are potentially dismantling and killing insects?

HL: We completely agree–we don’t want to torture any animals. For children, there’s a catch behind it. I know that there is a company selling a kit to children to teach them more about how neurons work. It’s a noble mission, but the company probably didn’t study the impact which the assimilation would have.

I think these kits begin to teach children how to interact and work with insects and animals. They have responsibilities to protect the animal and human both. Also, understanding the relationship between neurons and muscle movement may lead us towards helping animals recover from ailments in the future.

We’ve done extensive studies on cockroach behavior and their internal structure, and what kinds of damage realistically would be a part of this experiment. We’ve already discovered the least painful and least damaging approach; and then they recover.

We have the data to show that the cockroaches are not affected negatively.

BTR: So you’re at a phase currently where 70 percent of your roaches abide to the pulsations. Are you working now with other companies to see how we can bring them to disaster relief areas?

HL: Yes, but we’re not working with a company because our university has a very big disaster center. So we’re working with them because they have ideal simulation environments and conditions to help prepare for the real thing. It’s been one of the biggest aids in helping us to develop the technology further, so that we can get it closer and closer to something that will be able to aid in an event like a rescue mission.

BTR: What will future developments look like?

HL: Right now we’re looking at other accommodations and what conditions we’ll be continuing to build for. We’ll also be looking at the cockroach behavior further, in specific regards to understanding how they respond to different types of emergency situations.

BTR: There’s also hope for future projects focusing on even smaller insects. How do you predict science and technology will accommodate for something like, say, a robo-ant? Or even smaller, for that matter?

HL: I think the technology is already there–it’s just a matter of time before we start realizing it’s a good idea to do.

There are places you could access that are so small that we don’t even normally think about them. We just need to implant it and make it happen! It would be really useful, because this new approach would give us an extra eye, an extra finger.

Think about how much we can learn about the behavior of other species, like following a bee into the inside of a hive. It opens the door to limitless opportunity.