RoboRoach Kickstarter Sparks Bugs, Controversy

A campaign currently accepting funding on Kickstarter is preselling a kit that allows anyone to experiment with neuroscience on live cockroaches.

The RoboRoach project by Backyard Brains includes a small PCB that the user then physically attaches to a cockroach to create what they are calling the “world’s first commercially-available cyborg.” The campaign creator posted a video that was widely shared and the video has sparked some controversy. It is embedded below. Be forewarned: the video contains graphic content.

Some have criticized the campaign for being inhumane and for turning living things into a toy. The project creator took to the comments on his Kickstarter campaign to answer detractors. The core concern seems to be an ethical one, but the project creator insists that the basis of the campaign is rooted in the pursuit of scientific discovery…

Criticism: Modifying a living creature to make a toy is wrong.

Response: The RoboRoach circuit is not a toy. This new bluetooth version is a powerful low-cost tool for studying neural circuits, allowing for students to make discoveries. High school students in New York, for example, have discovered random stimulation causes much slower adaptation times. We have scientist and high school educator colleagues who are mentoring students in novel behavioral experiments using the RoboRoach circuit. Some highlights will be posted on our website soon.

The process of attaching the PCB to a roach includes gluing the apparatus to the animal itself and poking a small hole in the exoskeleton in order to insert a ground wire. It certainly isn’t a process for the squeamish bleeding hearts in the crowd.

Engadget wrote a piece about the campaign earlier this week and commenters criticized the media organization for covering the campaign at all, with some insisting that they would no longer visit the publication’s site.

Once the device is attached the electronic stimulus provided by the PCB can be controlled from a smartphone via bluetooth. The campaign is very likely to be fully funded.

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