RoboRoach: How to control a cockroach with your smartphone

'The world's first commercially available cyborg,' the RoboRoach is a cockroach fitted with a backpack that lets smartphone users control its movements.

Brian Cassey/AP
Eleven-year-old Paul Hasenpusch eyes his pet cockroach 'Cocky' in 1998 at his home in Cairns, Australia.

This is a roach with a higher calling: You.

Billed as the “world's first commercially available cyborg,” the RoboRoach debuted Monday on a Kickstarter page looking to raise $10,000 for the project by next month.

The project of Backyard Brains, a startup company of scientists and engineers headed by neuroscientists Greg Gage, the RoboRoach allows smartphone users to control a cockroach’s movements with a downloadable app. Yes, there’s an app for that.

Cockroaches use antennas packed with neurons to navigate their world, the campaign page explains. For example, when those antennas touch a wall, the neurons fire to the brain and instruct the roach to turn left or right, rather than pressing on in a hopeless show of resistance to human engineering.

This latest bit of human technology involves a “short surgery,” under anesthesia, where the roach’s wires are filled with wires that connect to a teeny backpack fixed to its back, the page says. It’s new owner can then use their smartphone to command that backpack to send pulses to the wires, which tell the cockroach that it has come up against a wall. And so, the roach turns, at your command.

"Controlling the RoboRoach is easy: Simply slide your finger across the screen, and the roach will move in that direction," according to a video on the page, in which the creators send vibrations of different durations and frequencies to a wired-up cockroach toddling across a table.

“This is not a gimmick,” the Kickstarter page also says.

As of Wednesday morning, the project had raised over $3600.

Your dominion over the roach will be temporary. Roaches are smart, and after a few minutes its brain will understand that it is being toyed with, and it will stop answering to the smartphone. With increased use, it will take more time for the roaches to respond to the smartphone command again and less time for them to remember that those wires are up to no good.

The Kickstarter page says that suiting up the bug does not hurt it. At a TED talk held in Scotland today, Dr. Gage, demonstrating the technology, pledged his company’s commitment to ethical science and said that the insects, ostensibly unharmed, are released back into the wild after their techy outfits are removed.

The RoboRoach’s creators also emphasize that the technology is not a toy and that it is exclusively intended for educational purposes, especially for classroom lessons in neuroscience (though you can also buy your own roach kit, complete with a dozen live roaches shipped in “a sturdy box”).  In a paper published in PLOS ONE, the inventors outline a possible lesson plan for the use of RoboRoach technology that teaches, among other things, how neurons carry information about touch and how muscles move. They also note that the technology is a potentially low cost solution for underfunded and underserved science classrooms.

The paper does not include advice for parents’ whose children come home with pilfered pet roaches.

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