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From Issue #31 December 5, 2013

Bug Testing

Turning bugs into remote-controlled cyborgs teaches us as much about ourselves as about them.

By David Erik Nelson Twitter icon 

The hand in the video scoops up a large beige cockroach and thrusts it into a jar of ice water. The roach struggles briefly, then grows calm as the cold anesthetizes it. It remains stoic as the hand scoops it up, sands away the waxy coating on its exoskeleton, glues down a homemade electrode bundle, and then begins surgery.

We see only the hands of the bug surgeon, who uses Silly Putty to secure the roach to a cutting board, then perforates the thorax and inserts the first of three hair-thin silver electrodes. Following a break for another ice-water anesthetic, the hands cut down the antennae (which are hollow) and insert an electrode in each. The roach is periodically sponged off with a cotton swab; dabs of superglue secure each component.

This is not a low-fi sci-fi YouTube film, an art project, a political statement, or a prank. This is a RoboRoach, touted by its surgeon-creators as “the world’s first commercially available cyborg.” It’s a living, breathing, radio-controlled roach designed by Backyard Brains in a cramped suite of tatty second-floor offices next to a yoga studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And you can buy one, today, for yourself or your favorite precocious niece.

It’s alive

We all know how devilishly adept a skittering cockroach is at evading capture, be it by large lizard or rolled-up magazine. What’s surprising is how easy it is to hack their sensory apparatus.1 Electrically stimulate the long nerve running through the left antenna and the cockroach will experience a sensation as though it had brushed up against something to its left, and thus will dodge right. Stimulate the right antenna, and it veers left. This is analogous to how a mounted rider steers a bridled horse. Stronger stimulus, be it an electrical jolt or a heel to the flanks, elicits a more extreme turn.

Once a dollar-coin–sized, Bluetooth-linked micro-controller is connected to the header on the electrode bundle installed on the iced cockroach — and the subject wakes from its post-op stupor — anyone with a smartphone can steer the little fella in just about any direction.

RoboRoach is many things to many people: “a great way to learn about neural microstimulation,” according to Backyard Brains; the practice of unlicensed veterinary medicine, according to PETA’s complaint filed in October with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and Board of Veterinary Medicine; or even “a serious potential upgrade for those kids that love to burn ants with a magnifying glass in summer — and an ethics-free lesson in mind control for the pursuit of entertainment,” as Liat Clark wrote in Wired UK last June, in response to Backyard Brains’ successful Kickstarter campaign to fund further RoboRoach development.

Whatever it is, one might reasonably wonder: how have we arrived at the cusp of what is either a terrible dystopia of cyborg enslavement or the glorious utopia of kitchen-table neuroscience?

A natural selection

Backyard Brains was founded in 2009 by two University of Michigan engineers, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo. But the RoboRoach saga began a decade earlier, with the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) 1999 “Bio-Revolution,” a project aimed at harnessing U.S. biological research to make more effective soldiers and weapons.

One facet of this initiative was the Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems (CBBS) program, which encouraged engineers to look to the animal kingdom, where natural selection has already invested millions of years in R&D. In 2001, CBBS was funding research at the University of Michigan Advanced Technologies Lab, where researchers were studying cockroach locomotion. They hoped to use the cockroach as a template for robots destined for rugged terrain, where traditional wheels or treads are impractical.

The challenge for the researchers in the Advanced Tech Lab was getting the cockroaches to scuttle around consistently so they could be observed and measured. The solution: pay undergrads $12 an hour to clip down cockroach antennae and thread in hair-thin leads soldered to phone jacks. The post-op roach could then be plugged into long, lightweight control cables wired to a brick-ish project box with a few dials (to set stimulation parameters), a battery, and right/left turn buttons. Those same undergrads could then drive the tethered roaches around for easy observation.2

Katherine Scott, a Boston-based research engineer, worked in the Advanced Technologies Lab as an undergrad in 2001, clipping cockroach antennae and feeding in leads. According to Scott, the art of electrically steering a cockroach remained in the engineering toolbox, but was little more than a parlor trick. After all, what good is a cockroach on a leash to a soldier in the field?

By 2003 DARPA’s CBBS program had morphed into the Robolife program, specifically dedicated to examining “the interface of living and nonliving systems,” and Scott had transferred to Advanced Tech’s sister facility, the Neural Engineering Lab. There DARPA was funding research on sensor systems blending neural probes, biofeedback, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) — a field then in its infancy. (MEMS are now made in the billions for smartphones, tablets, and compact gaming devices: tiny accelerometers to track speed, magnetometers to find magnetic north, barometers to sense altitude change, and the like.)

Gage and Marzullo were graduate students working in Neural Engineering, where they met Scott. “Greg and Tim were this sort of show in the middle of this giant research lab at U of M,” says Scott. “I was a research undergrad with pink hair and a nose ring. [We] got along really, really well.”

Two years later, when DARPA issued this 2006 solicitation seeking “reliable hybrid insect-MEMS interfaces” and “innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect cyborgs,” that was something very much in the wheelhouse of a certain pair of flamboyant U of M graduate students.

Creating a monster

Although RoboRoach has become their most notorious product, it wasn’t Gage and Marzullo’s first love. Their first product — and probably the most interesting to date — was the SpikerBox. This is an affordable, portable bioamplifier that allows you to hear and see action potentials (that is, “spikes”) moving across living neurons.

According to Backyard Brains’ current lead engineer, Bill Reith, the company’s goal is to create “an affordable platform of neuroscience education tools” that are broadly accessible. “Kind of like MakerBot did with 3D printers and Apple did with computers.”

Reith met Gage and Marzullo when he was still a biomedical engineering undergrad, after he was blown away by an early SpikerBox demo Marzullo gave to his physiology class. By 2010, Reith was on the team of students working on a wireless cockroach-control senior design project at the behest of Backyard Brains. This early RoboRoach was much simpler than what’s now on sale, and was ultimately dubbed “RoboRoach Beta.”

The control rig for RoboRoach Beta was a neural microstimulator hacked to the controller from an off-the-shelf remote-controlled toy bug. As a proof-of-concept, the RoboRoach Beta was pretty mind-bending — and not because it demonstrated that a cockroach could be consistently controlled using direct stimulation via 55 MHz pulses of less than 3 volts. U of M researchers had been doing that for a decade already.

Rather, RoboRoach Beta demonstrated the feasibility of building a wireless rig small enough for the roach to carry. More importantly, the RoboRoach Beta team established a reproducible surgery and implantation protocol with a very low failure rate. The whole operation could be reliably performed outside of a lab setting with supplies any motivated geek could get at RadioShack.

“But the total design of it was kind of awkward and almost too big for the cockroach,” Reith lamented. It used three discrete boards: a low-voltage 555 timer-based microstimulation circuit attached to each antenna, plus the controller board torn out of the toy. And it depended on someone else’s mass-produced product staying on the market.

Worst of all, it didn’t allow for any innovation. Want to change the pulse timing or intensity of the microstimulation? You’ll need to tear down the boards and replace resistors and capacitors. Want to try a varied or randomized pulse pattern? No dice; that would call for a totally different, significantly more complicated circuit, one likely too unwieldy for the roach to cart around.

So Backyard Brains took the results of what DARPA had paid the company to figure out about electrical microstimulation of neurons, embedded systems, MEMS, classroom expectations, and cockroach surgery, and went back to the drawing board. They built a new microstimulation-and-control system from the ground-up.

Instead of relying on an all-hardware solution, this new RoboRoach “backpack” was built around a fully programmable micro-controller. The result is something akin to the popular Arduino platform, but specifically for controlling cockroach movement. Much like an Arduino, new firmware can be installed on this platform, fundamentally changing operating parameters. But the user doesn’t need to go that far to tweak, customize, and experiment.

One key problem with direct neural microstimulation is habituation. Over time, the cockroach grows accustomed to the signal and stops responding. After about seven days, it can no longer be controlled at all and needs to be retired to a life of eating compostables and making babies. Being able to alter the signal helps delay this habituation.

By shifting from a dedicated hardware handheld remote to a smartphone app, Backyard Brains was able to dramatically expand the parameters a RoboRoach experimenter could access at the swipe of a finger. Signal frequency, pulse width, duration, and intensity can all be dynamically tweaked, or users can experiment with a “random mode” that automatically varies these parameters.3

Teach your children well

The advent of the RoboRoach as a product you can order online and have delivered to your doorstep has triggered a fairly snarled ethical debate.4

On its Web site Backyard Brains responds to these concerns in a remarkably unconvincing fashion. Some concerns are fairly easily dismissed, either because they are (fittingly) based on a misunderstanding of neuroscience, or because they are far too large to be addressed by a roomful of engineers and cockroaches.

Engineering programs conspicuously lack a meaningful ethics curriculum, so I contacted Dr. James Burke, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and a board-certified neurologist. Dr. Burke pointed out that high school students already regularly dissect higher-order animals, and working in animal labs is a regular part of any medical doctor’s undergrad education. “I seriously doubt that putting an electrode in a cockroach trains one to be a sadomasochist.”

As a neurologist, Dr. Burke isn’t inclined to extend “moral consideration” to cockroaches, and doesn’t believe performing RoboRoach surgery will put students “on a slippery slope to Mengele.” Nonetheless, as a neurologist and educator he still doubts the RoboRoach’s value in the classroom:

I’m skeptical that the device is pedagogically meaningful. It seems to me that these can convey one point highly convincingly: brains operate using electrical communications; the proof is that we can control them — by iPhone! But we have much better daily evidence for that than cockroach mind control.

Consider a cochlear implant. Forget the cockroaches and just go to YouTube for a video of someone turning one of those on for the first time. I’m having a hard time seeing that these projects add to that which is already readily available with approximately zero actual cockroach harm.5

Even Reith is quick to point out that, from an education standpoint, the various SpikerBoxes (some of which now use skin-mount electrodes to painlessly measure, amplify, display, and record human neural spikes) are more useful classroom tools.

But Katherine Scott, who still occasionally dabbles in RoboRoaching, and whose introduction to the world of engineering was clipping cockroaches for DARPA right around the time the twin towers fell on 9/11, disagrees. She spent part of the summer of 2013 working with Girls Who Code, Detroit, a comp-sci immersion camp for high school girls, especially those in underserved communities.

“I don’t even want to get into this debate,” she explains, “because if you saw the sort of interest you got from a room of 20 girls with one cockroach, there can be no, ‘Oh, what did the cockroach go through?’” The RoboRoach helped these young women see not only how wonderful and interesting science and engineering are, but their own potential in pursuing those interests. This is interesting, because it runs so directly contrary to a whole slew of assumptions we have about what it takes to “get girls interested in STEM.”6

“The roach is just a parlor trick,” she says. “But sometimes you need the theater barker to get people to come in and see the rest of the show.”

Photos courtesy Backyard Brains.


  1. As Backyard Brains co-founder Tim Marzullo put it in a 2011 interview with Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, “It’s like it’s designed to be a cyborg.” 

  2. This research ultimately significantly contributed to the design and behavior of the six-legged RHex robots deployed in Afghanistan last year. RHex is built by Boston Dynamics, a company often associated with unnerving robots; see also their ceaselessly wailing BigDog

  3. “Random mode” was added based on feedback from a class of high schoolers who had been running RoboRoach Beta experiments in class. 

  4. A debate with lots of nooks and crannies that I explored in great detail (4,900 words’ worth) in “In It for the Money: Cockroach Thanksgiving” in the Ann Arbor Chronicle

  5. If you’ve never watched one of these videos, let me point you to this example, which Bill Reith — lead engineer at Backyard Brains — also mentioned when we spoke, and which invariably makes me cry. 

  6. The common abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and careers involving these. 

David Erik Nelson keeps house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife, toy poodle, and two human children. His writing includes the geeky craft book Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred, a monthly opinion column in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and short stories that have appeared in magazines like Asimov's, anthologies like Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, and sprinkled across the Web. His novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available as an illustrated e-book for Kindle (and basically everything else).

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
©2017 Aperiodical LLC. The Magazine's online ISSN: 2334-4970. We ceased publication on December 18, 2014. You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. Read our privacy policy. Learn more about us. Billing troubles? Email us. Talk with us on Facebook and Twitter. Consult our FAQ for more answers. iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. App Store is a service mark of Apple Inc.