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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

Turn a cockroach into a real, living cyborg

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CNET Editor

Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.

(Credit: Backyard Brains)

A Kickstarter from the curious minds at Backyard Brains lets you build your own cyborg out of a real cockroach.

How are your surgery skills — and how do you feel about using them on a creepy, crawly cockroach? If your answers were between "excellent" and "I'm willing to find out", there's a way you can put both of those to use to create your very own, smartphone-controlled cyborg insect.

RoboRoach, from Backyard Brains — the same folks who played Cypress Hill to a squid — is not for the squeamish. Like many of the group's experiments and projects, it requires at least some vivisection.

But how it works is pretty interesting. A cockroach gets around by relying partly on its antennae. Sensitive to touch and smell, the antennae signal what to avoid, such as walls, and where it can find food. The RoboRoach rig runs a wire down each antenna to artificially stimulate the nerve, allowing Bluetooth commands to be sent to the bug to tell it where to go.

(Credit: Backyard Brains)

The kit, which comes with a minimum of a US$100 pledge, consists of the "backpack" and helmet, recording electrodes and a battery. You need to supply your own Bluetooth device, insect and surgery (you can anaesthetise a cockroach by putting it in a container of iced water, no fancy drugs required).

But the team is very careful to note that this is not a gimmick or a toy; it's a learning tool for observing neural control. It's for learning — the cockroach stops responding to the Bluetooth commands pretty quickly — adaptation and the effect of randomness.

"The RoboRoach is the world's first commercially available cyborg!" Bakcyard Brains said. "That's right ... a real-life Insect Cyborg! Part cockroach and part machine. This is not a gimmick ... just good ol' fashion neuroscience, evolution and engineering."

For those who have ethical concerns about performing experiments on live creatures, Backyard Brains has posted a response to the most common ones here.

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