Insect Cyborgs?
February 21, 2013

Insect Cyborgs?

Humans, it seems, generally feel comfortable taking domain over the rest of the living world. We’ve even created our own beings to do our bidding, giving us control over animal kingdom and robots alike, but for what reason?

We’re not complete monsters, after all. We use these creatures to do some general good. We would never have arrived where we are today without learning how to break a horse. We’d never have traded the horse for automobiles if we hadn’t developed machinery, and never would have been able to put a car in every driveway if it weren’t for robotics.

Now, DARPA is asking a group of bright and inquisitive individuals to meld animals, insects and robots together, giving humans electronic control over that which we once simply shared the earth with.

As outlined by Emily Anthes in her book “Frankenstein’s Cat,” DARPA asked American scientists back in 2006 to begin submitting their ideas on the best way to develop “insect-cyborgs.”

These insects could have some pretty obvious applications, acting as quiet spies to fly into otherwise dangerous situations and gather data.

Originally, DARPA asked for insect-sized robots to do the job.

Anthes suggests, however, that DARPA may have realized that the proverbial jumping off point was already in front of them. Rather than create a tiny, fly-sized robot that also has to fly, (a difficult feat) scientists began looking for ways to hack into the brains of these insects in hopes to control them remotely.

Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, former neuroscience postdoctoral fellows, are two scientists who know their way around an insect brain. They even began a company called Backyard Brains, which is centered around bringing the excitement and fun of neuroscience to backyards across the world.

Customers can buy all sorts of neuroscience tools from Backyard Brains, including stimulation cables, recording electrodes, SpikerBoxes and, of course, roaches.

There’s a few videos of the Backyard Brains team in action on the Guardian, going step-by-step through the surgery of outfitting a cockroach with the right type of hardware needed to control them with a few electrical pulses.

Once the receiver is glued to the top of their “head,” a ground wire run through their thorax and a pair of wires into each antenna, (the antennas must be cut first) the cockroach is ready to be guided by way of electronic pulses.

It’s not as mechanical as you might think. Mostly the roach looks as if it’s jerking in reaction to something disturbing rather than being guided along a path like some sort of overtaken zombie. There’s still something troubling about the entire thing, though.

Perhaps it’s just bad press, a bad association with horror films of old, with rats running underneath someone else’s power, wires running form their heads into backpacks.

This very sort of creature exists, by the by, and is detailed in Anthes’ excerpt.

I can’t help but shake a feeling as if this is territory where we shouldn’t tread. The Backyard Brains team, for instance, is taking a more educational approach rather than building insect-bots for the military. It’s beneficial to be curious. However, it’s frightening to look to these sorts of animals as expendable, something that we can easily dispose of in the name of military safety.

It’s early days still, but with something like this on the horizon, it’s best to pay attention.

Image Credit: Linda Bucklin / Shutterstock

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