RoboRoach Project Not Getting Rave Reviews From PETA
November 1, 2013

RoboRoach Project Not Getting Rave Reviews From PETA

[ Watch the Video: PETA Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Remote-Controlled Roaches ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Earlier this year a new Kickstarter campaign launched that allowed people to fund a project to control cockroaches using an iPhone, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is finally speaking out against the project, months later.

RoboRoach is a device that hijacks a cockroach’s antennae, allowing a user to tell the insect to turn left or right. Control over the cockroach only lasts for a little while before the insect’s brain eventually finds a way to ignore the device and go about on its own accord.

When the project was first announced, it garnered some national attention by the media, helping the creators reach their funding goal in just a month. While there were some criticisms about the project when it first launched, the animal rights organization had not come forward at the time. However, nearly five months later, PETA has now chosen to voice its concern over the cyborg cockroaches.

“Pulling the wings off flies—it's the textbook example of sadism. But not only is a Michigan-based company called Backyard Brains encouraging kids to torture bugs, it's also upping the ante by selling kits that turn bullying into a high-tech ‘experiment,’ PETA representative Alisa Mullins wrote in a blog.

While PETA likens Backyard Brains’ creators to children being cruel to bugs, the organization has also retaliated back in a childlike manner by telling on the company to authorities. The organization said it has reported to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development about how Backyard Brains is offering live cockroaches for sale and shipment without the required permit.

PETA said it has also submitted a complaint to the Michigan attorney general and the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs in an attempt to shut down Backyard Brains’ cyborg operation. The animal rights organization’s complaint is that Backyard Brains is performing “unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine (performing surgery on cockroaches), which is a felony, and instructing children to commit this crime, too.”

Most may not have much compassion for the millions of cockroaches that infest our basements, but PETA is attempting to sway that opinion by acknowledging the insects have feelings. Without reference to a specific study, PETA claims cockroaches are able to experience pain, which was a thought presented in the hit movie Men In Black with “Edgar the Bug.”

PETA did provide a reference to a 2009 study -- as reported by the Daily Mail -- in which scientists used computer simulations to prove insects contain enough neural circuits to possess consciousness.

Another study by Queen Mary University of London suggests cockroaches are able to communicate with one another when figuring out which food to eat. However, PETA did not mention that this study was aimed at finding a more effective insecticide or trap. When faced with a highly sophisticated insecticide or the option of being able to live on as a pet cyborg, it could be safe to assume cockroaches may choose the latter of the two.

Regardless of whether or not a cockroach minds being turned into a cyborg, PETA says RoboRoach is harmful to users.

“Not only is RoboRoach harmful to roaches, it's potentially harmful to the cyborgs' handlers. It could desensitize them to the feelings of those who are weaker than they are. One might just as well call it a ‘bully starter kit,’” PETA wrote.

Backyard Brains addressed some of PETA’s concerns back when it created its Kickstarter page. The company said it uses microstimulation to send small amounts of current to the neurons, which they say does not actually cause any pain. The company says the 55 Hz stimulation is the same frequency used in electrical stimulation to treat human neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.

“We can verify this by the fact that the cockroach can adapt to the micro stimulation in a few minutes, and ignore it completely, something that cannot be done with painful stimuli. Cockroaches also have a fear response, which we fail to see with using the cockroach,” Backyard Brain creators say.

While PETA sees the RoboRoach as a toy, Backyard Brain emphasizes it is a tool for science to study neural circuits and allow students to make discoveries.

“High school students in New York, for example, have discovered random stimulation causes much slower adaptation times. We have scientist and high school educator colleagues who are mentoring students in novel behavioral experiments using the RoboRoach circuit,” RoboRoach creators said.

Backyard Brains argues using this tool will help create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians to “tackle the very real problem of finding treatments to neural diseases."

“One in five people will be affected by a neural affliction at some point in their lives, and we have very little treatments to almost any neural affliction you can name (spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, Depression, Multiple Sclerosis, etc…). Our tools enable students to begin hands-on learning about neuroscience at a much earlier age (high school vs. grad school), giving such future scientists and engineers a 5-10 year head start on tackling such grand problems,” the company said.

PETA is right in pointing out that cockroaches have to undergo surgery in order to become a cyborg. However, Backyard Brains says the cockroach is anesthetized during the surgery to avoid the risk of the cockroach experiencing pain, while also pointing out it is debatable on whether the insects experience pain at all.

“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,” Backyard Brains said in its ethical statement about its research. “We have received several messages from adults and parents of children with neurological afflictions thanking us for making neuroscience easier to understand. We are constantly surveying the animal kingdom for easier and less invasive ways of unequivocally demonstrating neural activity. The cockroach leg preparation is the best we have found so far.”