Let’s say you have a certain someone on your list who is really into biohacking. Let’s also assume you’re Ok with having discoid roaches in the house. Then also let’s assume you don’t mind people operating on those roaches on your dining room table. Have I got a Christmas gift idea for you!
We first talked about the Roboroach back in 2011 when we found the idea to be weird and repellent. Arguably the idea is still weird and repellent but it is also an incredible experiment in neuroscience and a great way to teach STEM to potentially bored kids.
What is the Roboroach? It’s a $99 kit that includes a small Bluetooth-powered chip and a mini surgery. Roaches cost extra but you can get them at a local pet store. They recommend discoid roaches which cannot fly and have a few helpful markers on their bodies to help in the surgery.
Please remember that this is not a toy. You are working on live insects here and while the folks who make these, BackyardBrains offers a detailed ethical statement, you have to be OK working and potentially killing a living thing. It’s a hard thing for kids to grasp and it’s also pretty gross if you’re not in the proper mindset.
To “install” it you have to insert a tiny wire lead into the roach’s wing muscle and then snip and connect leads to the roach’s antennae. The first step, however, is to glue a three-lead system to its head carapace. The process is at once precise and very imprecise. If you’re not a born surgeon you are sure to mess things up but the bug is essentially asleep during your ministrations thanks to an ice water bath that occurs after each step. This is not for the squeamish. The insertion of the leads is quite difficult the first time and the snipping of the antennae and insertion of the other two leads is quite scary. Everything is held together with super glue and a low temperature hot glue gun and the insect can survive the procedure and live a happy life after you experiment on it, dying a natural death albeit with a three-pronged lead attached to its head.
Once everything is installed you can simply connect a very small and light electrical stimulator to the bug and start sending signals.
How does it work? Again, you have to treat this like a scientific experiment. The system is not actually a remote control for a roach. It’s more like a signal generator that sends electrical pulses to the roach’s antennae. These pulses then send the roach moving either left or right, depending on the signal. This works only for a brief period and then neuroplasticity kicks in and the roach forgets the signals.
I did this with three kids ages 3, 6, and 9 and all of them were very weirded out but they all had a good time watching and talking about the experiment. Unlike, say, model rocketry this project is quite involved and quite advanced and I could definitely see some solid experiments coming from this kit and it should inspire some biologists of the future.
The Roboroach will either make perfect sense as a gift for someone on your holiday list or it will make no sense at all. Whether or not you want to put roaches under your tree is a judgement call only you can make but rest assured it’s a crazy and crazy fun way to learn about biohacking in a very real way.