Controlling Cockroaches

Responses to RoboRoach, a behavior-controlling cockroach backpack, vary from enthusiasm to ethical concerns.

By | October 8, 2013

BACKYARD BRAINS, GREG GAGEWhen RoboRoach appeared as a Kickstarter project in June, the project to control a living cockroach’s movements using a smartphone, generated buzz and was successfully funded. Now the project is poised for a large-scale launch in November, but some dissidents have raised ethics concerns about the way it frames animal experimentation.

Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, who are both trained neuroscientists and engineers, cofounded Backyard Brains, the company behind RoboRoach. According to the Kickstarter page, RoboRoach is a backpack that the roach wears that “communicates directly to the neurons via small electrical pulses.” By trimming the roach’s antenna to insert wires that could be attached to the Bluetooth backpack, aspiring neuroscientists can control the roach through a smartphone. Gage and Marzullo have billed the project as a way to spark an interest in neuroscience in students as young as 10 years old.

But some experts are concerned about the ethical implications of RoboRoach. “[The devices] encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools,” Michael Allen Fox, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Canada, told ScienceNOW. Animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, DC, added that the idea that animals are not harmed by the removal of body parts is “disingenuous.”

Backyard Brains responded to the criticisms of the project on the ethics section of the company’s website. “Our experiments are not philosophically perfect and without controversy; however, we believe the benefits outweigh the cost due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age,” they wrote. At Ted Global 2013 Gage added, “If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neuro-revolution.”

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Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

October 9, 2013

Forget the "neurorevolution".  If the cockroach does not respond as quickly as a video game, the vast majority of kids will get bored.  Ethical concerns?  Hmm, IT'S AN ICKY BUG!

Avatar of: Mary Finelli

Mary Finelli

Posts: 26

Replied to a comment from Paul Stein made on October 9, 2013

October 9, 2013

"IT'S AN ICKY BUG!" This is just the attitude we should NOT be encouraging in children. Adult disgust and phobia of insects is probably the initial exposure children have to the concept that insects -and ultimately other animals and nature in general- are contemptible and ours to mistreat. This device will serve the same purpose: teaching children that it is acceptable and encouraged to exploit and harm other living beings. A TERRIBLE idea and a very detrimental device.

Avatar of: RobertE


Posts: 12

October 9, 2013

I fail to see an ethical dilemma. In general, roaches are stomped or poisoned if found in the house. In spite of the attitude expressed by Mary Finelli's post, I do not see this changing. Roaches are believed to transmit disease, and, yes, they are icky. Would anyone want them running around on their dishes? I disagree this device teaches that "other animals and nature in general are contemptible."

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 43

Replied to a comment from Mary Finelli made on October 9, 2013

October 9, 2013

I share Mary Finelli's apprehension. If it weren't for the marketing angle, I would be enthused about the possiblities of this device for science, but not for fun.

I was probably about 10 when I burned a few ants with a magnifying glass. It was fun and it was interesting but I didn't learn either than killing is fun or ants are contemptible. However, I can imagine kids (and others) making cockroaches walk into a fire, or a roach motel, or come up with other gruesome ideas. 

At this point, though, all I can say is both the inventors' optimism and my pessimism are sheer speculation. 


Avatar of: Ethics


Posts: 1

October 18, 2013

There have been those who have said "It is ok to experiment on x because it is only a Jew / insane person / Guatemalan prisoner/ aboriginal / etc. / etc. / etc."

It is not acceptable for experimentation on live animals to be considered commonplace.

We accept limited experimentation on live animals when the information cannot be obtained by other methods because we value the information more than pain of the subject. This includes teachings that cannot be achieved by other means (ex. doctors operating on a pig - but the pig is put to sleep first and killed after, so it should not experience the trauma of surgery).

The teaching of bodily functions to the general public (school kids) does not warrant the injuring of live animals.

Avatar of: D1638


Posts: 1

October 18, 2013

We PAY for stuff to get rid of cockroaches. Since when killing them, let alone playing with them is unethical? Please . . .

Avatar of: Simon155


Posts: 1

November 11, 2013

One plus side of news articles like this: It makes it very easy for people in general (and police investigators) to spot potential psychopaths.

For anyone WITH ethical standards, the problems are obvious. Those without will simply fail to grasp it.

We had a company like that here in the UK - Huntingdon Life Sciences. When some of their activities caused public concern it was dealt with quickly. Protests grew to such a point they couldn't work. When scientists names started becoming public, and addresses followed, it rapidly escalated until no one wanted to be associated with it or it's products.

In the meantime, a public spokesperson has very publicly claimed the insects are "not harmed". I would encourage people to order lots - then open one packet, read the instructions, and simply sue for refunds under the very simple line that you were misssold a product which very clearly does inflict harm on the insects.

Shut them down.

Avatar of: JJm7530


Posts: 2

November 12, 2013

I feel the problem lies in the manner in which children are encouraged. Yes it is "just" a bug to begin with... then "just" a mouse.. then "just" a monkey, and on it goes.  Morelity in science is highly questionable...Science is now moving away from crude antiquated research and cruel experimentation and on to highly sophisticated computor generated laboratories that are varstly superior and more reliable in terms of "human" outcomes. Lets NOT encourage our children to use and abuse so young. There is plenty of time for that in adulthood. :-(


Avatar of: JJm7530


Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Simon155 made on November 11, 2013

November 12, 2013

Simon155 well said... I spent a long time helping campaign for HLS closure. This would most certainly bring the sadists out of the proverbial woodworks. :D



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