If you listen closely enough in parts of southern China, you might just hear the deep hum of an overworking computer along with the scratching of a billion cockroaches.
The city of Xichang in China’s southwestern Sichuan province is home to a vast multi-story factory that uses artificially intelligent (AI) computers to breed over 6 billion cockroaches a year, as recently reported by the South China Morning Post. It’s estimated that the building produces around 28,000 adult cockroaches per 0.09 square meters (1 square foot) each year. Inside the sealed building, it’s hot, humid, dark, and filled with a constant rustling noise. Any cockroach born within the facility will never see a ray of sunlight.
Computers are used to constantly keep tabs on the indoor environment, gathering data on everything from the food supply and humidity levels to roach growth rates and genetics. If the sensors note any changes that could slow down production, AI will automatically work out a solution and make the appropriate changes.
All of this hard work is for one reason. Cockroaches are widely revered in parts of Asia for their medicinal properties. For thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine has touted the benefits of cockroaches for all kinds of ailments, including common colds, stomach bugs, and chronic pain.
This might be an unusual idea in the Western world, where roaches are viewed as a health hazard rather than a health food. Nevertheless, there have been a handful of studies that suggest cockroaches could hold some medicinal potential. For one, UK scientists have found that the brains of cockroaches can kill MRSA superbugs and pathogenic E. Coli, a discovery that could be used to develop treatments for drug-resistant infections. If that still doesn't convince you, blended-up cockroaches can also be drunk for a protein-rich nutritious meal. However, many of the bigger cockroach-related health claims do remain unfounded, in terms of Western science.
The GoodDoctor Pharmaceutical Group of Chengdu, which owns the factory in China, has made around $684 million by manufacturing an elixir of blended-up roaches. Millions of people in China regularly consume the health drink, which is said to be “slightly sweet” yet “slightly fishy”. Yum.
“The source of raw material, to most people, is disgusting. That is an important reason why the use of the potion is not found in other countries,” an anonymous researcher who studies cockroaches at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences told the South China Morning Post.
“Even in China, most patients might not know the liquid came from cockroaches.”