Has anyone seen this? The entomology/science geek part of me wants to order one of these right now.
The company Backyard Brains, which markets a wide variety of products as ‘experiments’ for learning about neuroscience, has released the Roboroach. Basically, at a cost of $99 (plus shipping, unless you want to go pick it up yourself), you can order the components that you would need to manufacture your very own cyborg cockroach (roach not included, from what I can tell). A cockroach whose movements you are able to direct by remote control, provided you are capable of performing the surgery needed to implant electrodes, and the manual dexterity needed to attach the control harness.
The end result looks something like this:
And not as much like this (as I had hoped):
The fact that this technology is readily available for online ordering makes me feel like I am reading the advertisements in the back of some old copy of ‘Tales of Wonder’ or some other pulp science fiction. I mean, this is seriously amazing and awesome! Not just the cool factor or a remote-control roboroach, but also the many directions one could take with this type of research. Biomechanical organisms that could be used for exploration, search and rescue, sampling dangerous environments, research, blah blah blah. Or what about research into prosthetics, and developing artificial limbs that we can control as though we had been born with them? Of course, as many people are pointing out in response to this product, there might be serious consequences to such a commercialization of science.
The suggestion has been made, using the argument of the slippery slope, that this is the first step along a path that leads to the callous disregard of living creatures, treating other animals as nothing more than a device to be manipulated for idle amusement. Nobody cares now, since it is just a cockroach, and (with the exception of a few nutty entomologists) who really cares about cockroaches? What happens, though, when we are talking about mice, or cats and dogs, or maybe even people? Do we want our children to grow up thinking that it is OK to implant electrodes in the heads of random critters in order to make them dance in a music video (who would do something like that?), or worse yet, do we want this technology to eventually result in the ability to control other people?
It is a difficult argument for me to reconcile. On the one hand, I have to admit that I find this pretty amazing, and more than a little awesome. On the other hand, what responsibility do we have as scientists and engineers, as innovators and entrepreneurs, or just as ordinary human beings, to draw lines in the sand that we shall not cross? Is this one of those lines? You might argue that it is too dangerous, and we should forbid it, or you might argue that there should be no limits on research. Maybe you think there is no bad technology, only bad people who misuse it. I do not really know what the right answer is to the question I have posed, and I am not going to try to answer it here, but I put the question out there for your consideration. Regardless of what choice we make, I think that we certainly have an obligation to consider the consequences of our actions…