Robots Are So 20th Century! Here Come the Cyborgs

Friday, September 28, 2012 by Dylan Novak        

The typical visionary future of a world where robots function as the human workforce is now a view of the past; instead, the new future might lie in harnessing the biotic power of animals. On August 28th, researches at N.C. State released a paper detailing their experiments with cyborg cockroaches. These researchers pursued the development of the cockroach cyborgs for the noble cause of saving victims of earthquake disasters. While the potential of the cockroaches is exciting, hijacking the sensory organs of animals could present an interesting controversy over animal rights.

You might say, well this is ‘only’ a cockroach? It doesn’t matter.

To control these living cockroaches, the N.C. State researchers have attached electrodes to a sensory organ in the cockroach’s abdomen and at the neural tissue at the base of the antenna. By sending “small charges” of electricity through the electrodes, the researchers can fool the cockroach into the thinking it needs to run from a predator in the desired direction. Through this process, the researchers can even make the cockroach navigate a curvy line.

The ability to save earthquake victims in the future is promising, but some people have found the idea of controlling a living creature in this manner to be unethical. In opposition to this research, one graduate biologist stated that scientist needs to “stop treating animals as things.”

In retort to such criticism, Alper Bozkurt, one of the researchers, stated that “steering a roach with a remote control is much the same as steering a horse with reins.” While Bozkurt raises an interesting point, some might argue that putting a bit in a horse’s mouth is not the same as sending electrical charges into neural tissue.

Currently, cockroaches are not protected by North Carolina animal cruelty laws, and that might be perfectly fine; however, the real issue with cyborg animals is what comes after cockroaches. Scientist have already mapped out the human brain enough to control robotic arms with the mind, so using the brain to control movement is not out of reach. Recently, Harvard biologists have even managed to control a worm’s movement through lasers directed at the worm’s brain.

With technology advancing at an incredible rate, a future where cyborgs go beyond worms and cockroaches is not far off. The question is whether it is ethical and legal to control animals in such a way. North Carolina law prevents the “torment” and “torture” of amphibians, mammals, birds, and reptiles, but only time will tell if brain control fist under either of these terms.

Harnessing biological energy could help solve the lack of power and mobility that robots currently face, but at what cost?