Available to backers via Kickstarter today, and featured at TEDGlobal this week, the RoboRoach is a $99 kit consisting of electrodes, sensors, and a few batteries that allows anyone to drive their very own cockroach.
Attaching the electronic "backpack" to an unwitting arthropod is not for the squeamish. You must sand down the top of the critter's head in order to attach a plug, "Exactly like the Matrix," says Backyard Brains cofounder Greg Gage. Once installed, the system relays electrical impulses over a Bluetooth connection from your phone to the cockroach's brain, via its antennae. The roach perceives each stimulus to its antennae as an obstacle, and changes direction. The same technique, applied to the cilia of the inner ear, is used in cochlear implants; similarly, deep brain stimulation is used for treating a variety of disorders.
Greg Gage is an electrical engineer-turned-neuroscience PHD student at the University of Michigan who, with his cofounder Tim Marzullo, started developing the RoboRoach three years ago. They've spent the last few years testing it with students around the U.S. and in Chile. He says their motivation is to share the wonder of neuroscience. "The reason why we started is because I was annoyed that it was so late that I found out about a career in neuroscience. We have one in five people with a neurological disorder and we have no cures—we're kind of in the dark ages. We want to get kids to understand that this is a career, and you can do so many amazing things."
Of course, there's more than a little bit of P.T. Barnum in the RoboRoach. A previous stunt of Gage's, involving video of squid membranes pulsing to music, raised some blowback about animal welfare—as could the RoboRoach project, of course.
Gage claims that he has scientific proof that neither the surgery nor the stimulation hurts the roaches. The proof, according to Gage, is that the stimulation stops working after a little while as the roaches apparently decide to ignore it. "If it were pain, they couldn't habituate to it," he says, comparing the Bluetooth signals to "someone tapping you on the shoulder." After "retirement" they go on to live healthy lives and reproduce.
Moreover, the RoboRoach has already led to a scientific discovery. High school students at Cooper Union High School in New York City found out during beta testing that a randomized electrical signal took longer to habituate than a steady pulse. This could have implications for the future design of "brain pacemakers" that are being tested for problems ranging from Parkinson's to OCD to eating disorders.