Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cockroaches to the rescue

By hacking their minds, reviled insects can work for good, not evil

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Last fall, the world was introduced to real, live, remote-controlled cockroaches. Well, the insect hackers at North Carolina State University are at it again, this time with a Microsoft Kinect and a software program that can boss the bugs around without human input. In other words, we have successfully co-opted cockroach sovereignty -- and given it to the machines.

The goal is to ultimately use this kind of technology to create armies of biobots capable of things of which bio-inspired robots can only dream. Which is to say, if we programmed bio-inspired robots to dream.

There may be huge advantages to focusing on biobots over bio-inspired robots. (A biobot is a living creature that's been hacked, while a bio-inspired robot is a machine built to resemble a living creature.) For example, Harvard's Wyss Institute recently unveiled some impossibly small robots capable of flight. But any iteration of artificial insect will be limited to abilities programmed by its human makers. In contrast, when you start with a living insect, you can hijack all of its natural abilities, like running, jumping, flying, sensing its surroundings and ruining a good bowl of soup. The researchers say their roaches could one day be used to map environments and locate victims in areas into which it isn't safe to send a human -- like collapsed buildings and areas contaminated by poison gas, radiation or any of the various things you'd find in a summer blockbuster. They may even be able to attach microphones and speakers so rescuers could communicate with survivors. (Basically, a Gandalf and the moth type situation. #nerdalert)

In a paper to be presented next week at the Remote Controlled Insect Biobots Minisymposium, the researchers, who received funding from the National Science Foundation's CyberPhysical Systems Program, show how they've anticipated the need to put biobot swarms on autopilot. Previous research by North Carolina State had shown it was possible to control a cockroach's movements by wiring into its antennae and cerci, or abdominal sensory organs. Electrical impulses get the bugs to move in a certain direction by tricking them into thinking there's a wall to the left or right, or a threat approaching from behind.

Now, instead of those impulses being controlled remotely by a human, they're tapped into the software program, which takes cues from the Xbox Kinect's tracking data. If the cockroach veers away from the target, the Kinect observes the change and relays it to the software, which in turn makes a split-second decision about how much correctional impulse should be sent to the roach. Longer stimulation is designed to produce more drastic correction, just like pulling hard on a steering wheel.

The results are pretty impressive. Their previous work with remote control yielded only about a 10 per cent success rate, but the new technology has bumped them up to 27 per cent.

One of the paper's coauthors, Alper Bozkurt, tells me the Kinect brings some other advantages to the process, like being able to control the roaches in the dark. It also helps them steer. "Each insect biobot is unique due to the small variance of electrode positioning in tissue as well as natural differences in insect anatomy," said Bozkurt. "We use Kinect as a calibration platform to automatically assess our steering capability on each roach and fine tune it."

If you're at all concerned about the ethics of brain control, you can at least rest assured Bozkurt and his team chose cockroaches for the insect's lack of pain receptors. (Moths also meet this specification.) Bozkurt calls their research "the next level of our efforts on domesticating insects," same as we've done with bees for their honey and pollination, worms for their silk, and larger animals like horses and oxen for their speed and strength. "So what we are working on is a cyber-physical way to domesticate the insects to benefit from their muscle power," he said.

And when you put it that way, I suppose I'd rather be a cockroach with an electrode backpack than a pig in a pen.

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 D4

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