As one of the most loathed creatures on the planet, you’re probably not going to jump on the phone to PETA and cry “animal cruelty!” after finding out that students in China have developed a system that allows them to govern the creepy crawlie’s movements using their own thoughts. Effectively, what they claim to have done is turn the bug into a controllable, living “machine animal.” Sorry, roaches; we are your overlords now (cue dramatic “Mwahahhahhah”).
This isn’t actually the first time that scientists have tinkered with cockroach brains. Last November, a team from North Carolina State University created “cyborg cockroaches”, which were fitted with tiny backpacks that picked up and directed the animals toward certain sounds, such as the screams of someone trapped by an earthquake. Then, in March, Texas A&M University trumped their innovation by designing a hybrid system that allowed researchers to remotely stimulate the bug’s brain and thus steer it from a distance. Both were designed to be life-saving tools to be employed in the event of disasters.
Now, inspired by the “brain–brain interface” system that features in the movie Avatar, a bunch of engineering students from Shanghai Jiao Tong University have gone and created their own version, allowing a human user to guide a cockroach subject using their mind. And it was deemed so impressive that it won second prize in this year’s IEEE RAS students’ video contest.
To join up the two brains, a cockroach first undergoes brain surgery, whereby a tiny electrode is inserted into a nerve that picks up information from the antennae. A human user is then fitted with a headset that picks up and records their brain waves. After specifically thinking about the intention to move, which is helped along with some visual stimulation, a computer decodes the patterns of electrical brain activity and recognizes the user’s intended direction of movement.
Following translation, the signals are wirelessly transmitted to an electronic backpack fitted onto the cockroach, causing the microelectrode to send out a stimulating electrical impulse to the antennal nerve. And hey presto, the little bug moves in the intended direction. So far, the students have managed to guide individual cockroaches to walk in both s- and z-shaped paths, but their work isn’t over yet. With further fine-tuning, the team hopes to be able to control multiple insects at the same time. Ultimately, the students believe that these mind-controlled roaches could also be employed in search-and-rescue missions.