As I See It: Second Responder
November 7, 2022 Victor Rozek
If a thousand people were asked to complete the sentence: “The world could sure use more …” they would doubtless come up with a variety of thoughtful and compelling answers. But I’m willing to bet not one in a thousand would say “cockroaches.”
Nonetheless, advances in technology and miniaturization all but guarantee robotic roaches will be part of our supporting cast in what is rapidly becoming a sci-fi-esque future. Apparently, researchers have long had a keen interest in what insects do and how they do it, although one would think what roaches do shouldn’t be much of a mystery. They hide out during the day and spread disease by night. If food poisoning, diarrhea, and aggravated asthma are your thing, you’ll love cockroaches. Happily, robotic roaches will provide none of those benefits.
Robotics engineers are fascinated by how insects move and fly for functional reasons. A roboroach would be much more agile than conventional hulking robots. It could access spaces larger lifeforms can’t, and therefore perform functions not easily accomplished on a human scale.
Imagine the challenges and the urgency of searching for survivors in collapsed buildings after a major earthquake or in a war zone. Negotiating large slabs of concrete, moving unstable debris, and recovering injured victims is both daunting and dangerous. But a mechanized insect sporting a camera could provide invaluable information to rescuers without unnecessary risk to survivors or responders.
In a perfect world, hordes of real cockroaches would invade the Kremlin, while robotic roaches help rescuers find Ukrainian civilians trapped in the rubble of bombed out cities. But I digress.
As fascinating – albeit eerily repulsive – the thought of robotic roaches may be, it pales in comparison to what researchers are doing to a species called Gromphadorhina portentosa: They’re creating cyborg roaches. Think of it as a scaled down version of Kurzweil’s singularity achieved with enslaved insects.
Last month, an engaging article on the subject written by Pranshu Verma appeared in The Washington Post. The cockroach of choice, he reports, is not a domestic variety, but an import from an island off the coast of Africa: the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. The hissing must be mostly for show, because they are considered quite docile (unlike the Brooklyn cockroach), and have the added virtue of being large enough to carry assorted sensors, chips, and wires on their back. They also, reportedly, make good pets, although why anyone would want a pet cockroach is a subject best left to psychiatry.
Researchers “are strapping 3D-printed sensors” complete with tiny solar panels, onto the backs of live roaches (which, we can assume, are hissing their displeasure). As electronic sensors and batteries get smaller, says Verma, largely “because of smartwatch and smartphone research,” the potential uses for cyborg and/or robotic insects is growing. Beyond emergency response, “farming and energy” are two sectors that may also benefit.
Strapping superhero costumes onto roaches to give them extended functionality is one thing; getting them to do what you want is quite another. A lab in Japan is solving that problem with “a Bluetooth sensor for remote control and specialized computers that connect to the cockroach’s abdomen and send tiny shocks to direct it left or right.” How they get them to stop is not clear.
Researchers envision releasing some number of these reluctant volunteers into the rubble of a collapsed building “with carbon dioxide sensors and cameras on their backs, helping find people that need saving.”
But it may come as a surprise to learn that there are people who believe it is cockroaches that need saving—from us. They’re called bioethicists and they worry that the roaches may not like being captured, loaded down with miniaturized gear, then zapped to promote locomotion. They may, in fact, feel pain or distress. Ya think? The question, however, is: Do roaches have rights?
Verma reports that an animal bioethics professor at New York University would like at least to open discussions on the subject. “We’re not even paying lip service to their welfare or rights,” he said. “We’re not even going through the motion of having laws or policies or review boards in place so that we can halfheartedly try to reduce the harms that we impose on them.” Being a member of a cockroach policy review board is no doubt the honor of a lifetime, yet oddly few pursue it.
Granted roaches are not terribly charismatic, and roach rights will no doubt be too Woke a concept for some. But on the other hand, entomologist have been sounding the alarm about global insect population collapse—as my clean windshield will attest. The reality is that insects are essential to soil and ecosystem health, and pollinators bring forth the very food we eat. Without them we can expect mass starvation and accompanying social unrest. So, while “Save the Whales” will probably never be replaced by “Save the Cockroaches” it may be useful to fully understand and mitigate our impact on the natural world.
Perhaps sensing the inevitable, researchers are also experimenting with tiny robotic pollinators fashioned after lightening bugs. But any commercial application, be it pollinators or rescue roaches, is still years away.
As for the rights of cockroaches, any bug associated with the word “infestation” is not likely to engender a great deal of sympathy. And this I know for two reasons. First, I once stepped on a roach barefoot in the dark while on vacation in the tropics. I felt a range of emotions, but compassion was not one of them. My second aha came courtesy of my wife. She is gentle and considerate by nature; the type of woman who sees a spider in the house, traps it, and takes it outside. Or, more often than not, she will point to one crawling across the rug, and ask me to relocate it before the cat kills it for sport.
But a few years back, we returned home from a trip to Hawaii. Among our luggage was a mesh dive bag with fins, masks, snorkels, and wet suits. As I unzipped the bag what should pop out, but a big, fat, brown cockroach. Imagine, that thing survived a trans-Pacific flight in the hold of a plane! But, unlike a house spider, it would not be offered a relocation option. As soon as she saw it, my peace-loving humane wife started yelling: “Kill it, kill it!” Which I did.
I can report that it left this world with a satisfying crunch, and bioethicists will be pleased to know it had no chips, wires, solar panels, or sensors of any sort.