A Swarm of Cyborg Cockroaches That Lives in Your House

Japanese researchers say turning cockroaches into an army of insect cyborgs could be useful in a variety of ways

2 min read
Cyborg cockroaches
Image: Digital Nature Group/University of Tsukuba

Digital Nature Group at the University of Tsukuba in Japan is working towards a “post ubiquitous computing era consisting of seamless combination of computational resources and non-computational resources.” By “non-computational resources,” they mean leveraging the natural world, which for better or worse includes insects

At small scales, the capabilities of insects far exceed the capabilities of robots. I get that. And I get that turning cockroaches into an army of insect cyborgs could be useful in a variety of ways. But what makes me fundamentally uncomfortable is the idea that “in the future, they’ll appear out of nowhere without us recognizing it, fulfilling their tasks and then hiding.” In other words, you’ll have cyborg cockroaches hiding all over your house, all the time.

Warning: This article contains video of cockroaches being modified with cybernetic implants that some people may find upsetting.

Remote controlling cockroaches isn’t a new idea, and it’s a fairly simple one. By stimulating the left or right antenna nerves of the cockroach, you can make it think that it’s running into something, and get it to turn in the opposite direction. Add wireless connectivity, some fiducial markers, an overhead camera system, and a bunch of cyborg cockroaches, and you have a resilient swarm that can collaborate on tasks. The researchers suggest that the swarm could be used as a display (by making each cockroach into a pixel), to transport objects, or to draw things. There’s also some mention of “input or haptic interfaces or an audio device,” which frankly sounds horrible.

The reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places.

There are many other swarm robotic platforms that can perform what you’re seeing these cyborg roaches do, but according to the researchers, the reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They’re a lot messier (yay biology!), but they can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places. And when you need them again, turn the control system on and experience the nightmare of your cyborg cockroach swarm reassembling itself from all over your house. 

While we’re on the subject of cockroach hacking, we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t share some of project leader Yuga Tsukuda’s other projects. Here’s a cockroach-powered clock, about which the researchers note that “it is difficult to control the cockroaches when trying to control them by electrical stimulation because they move spontaneously. However, by cutting off the head and removing the brain, they do not move spontaneously and the control by the computer becomes easy.” So, zombie cockroaches. Good then.

And if that’s not enough for you, how about this:

The researchers describe this project as an “attempt to use cockroaches for makeup by sticking them on the face.” They stick electrodes into the cockroaches to make them wiggle their legs when electrical stimulation is applied. And the peacock feathers? They “make the cockroach movement bigger, and create a cosmic mystery.”

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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