Next month, Backyard Brains will begin selling the Bluetooth RoboRoach, the first cyborg to be commercially available to the general public. Priced at $99.99, the product is cheap and simple to use. After a “brief surgery,” users attach an electronic backpack to a cockroach and then use their smartphones to overstimulate the cockroach, making the insect move to the left or to the right.
Backyard Brains’ founders, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, began creating the cyborg after raising funds on KickStarter to start Backyard Brains in 2010. Although Greg and Tim began working on the project three years ago, the ideas for RoboRoach were planted in their minds years ago, when they conducted neurological experiments together as undergraduates at the University of Michigan. Greg’s family suffered from depression and neurological disorders, and neurology helped him understand his family’s medical problems. He thought creating a fun, commercially viable cyborg would increase the public’s interest in neurological issues.
“Neurological diseases suck,” Greg told me over the phone. “Getting people excited about the brain is the idea [behind RoboRoach].”
Greg and Tim aimed to make the product an educational project. Students across the country have been conducting their own experiments with the beta version of RoboRoach, collecting data that has helped Backyard Brains improve their model.
“Every year it gets more advanced,” Greg said.
There is one problem neither the Backyard Brains team nor the students have been able to solve: The cyborg can’t be controlled indefinitely, because after several minutes cockroaches learn to ignore the battery attached to their back. If the cockroach is returned to its cage, it will begin to obey the smartphone again, but after a few days the insect will stop reacting to the signals completely. According to the Backyard Brains website, after this happens “you can clip the wires and retire the cockroach to your breeder colony to spend the rest of its days making more cockroaches for you.”
In the early 2000s at the State University of New York, researchers conducted a similar experiment with mice, controlling the rodents with laptops instead of smartphones. Eventually, the team was able to maneuver the mice through multiple obstacles; the signal to turn left felt like someone rubbing their whiskers. The mice were constantly rewarded, so they were more likely to respond. But this won't work with cockroaches.
However, before Backyard Brains can fix the bugs in their product, they are going to have to deal with PETA. Unsurprisingly, the notorious animal rights organization is pissed a bunch of scientists are using smartphones to control animals. Via email, a PETA representative told me Backyard Brains was treating animals like “Tinkertoys or Legos.” She said,“To be disrespectful of life forms because they are small and we do not fully understand them or appreciate their place in the larger scheme of things is wrong. It is retrogressive and morally dubious.”
Greg understands why these experiments alienate animal activists and other groups opposed to animal testing, but he thinks the problem is more deep-seated than that—he believes the opposition to the project may stem from anxiety that “maybe [these devices] could somehow be used on humans.” Greg and the Backyards Brains team think this is ridiculous.
This past April Fool’s Day, they announced their next project: a “society” of universities, churches, and politicians who would agree to use this type of “mind control” on humans. The project would cost $15 million and would take approximately 40,000 years to accomplish.
“I think it was too highbrow for most people to get [the joke],” Greg said.