In defence of the cyborg cockroach

University of Otago bioethics lecturer Mike King discusses remotely controlled ''cyborg cockroaches''. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
University of Otago bioethics lecturer Mike King discusses remotely controlled ''cyborg cockroaches''. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Many people would be repulsed by the idea of children surgically fitting cockroaches with electronic devices and controlling them by smartphones, but in future such ''biobots'' could save lives after earthquakes.

Those comments were made last week by University of Otago bioethics lecturer Mike King, who spoke on ''Remotely controlled cyborg cockroaches: wrongful encroachment?'' at the New Zealand Bioethics Conference in Dunedin.

United States firm Backyard Brains sparked some controversy last year by promoting the creation of ''remote-control'' cockroaches.

US youngsters can follow an information kit and surgically implant electrodes into cockroaches, enabling them to be controlled by smartphones.

The firm said this would have educational benefits, by teaching youngsters more about neuroscience.

And researchers from North Carolina State University have also suggested a useful purpose for such ''biobots''.

A swarm of cyborg cockroaches carrying electronic sensors could be used to map dangerous areas, such as the interior of buildings which have collapsed after an earthquake.

Dr King said that many people found cockroaches repellent.

And it was also ''quite understandable'' that many people would, at first view, find it ''repugnant'' for children to be undertaking surgery on such insects.

But many of the claimed ethical objections to creating ''biobots'' were unconvincing, and evidence, in fact, suggested that cockroaches did not feel pain.

He also took issue with the suggestion that treating cockroaches that way could have negative effects on the way children later dealt with other animals or people.

Cockroaches equipped with various sensors could prove successful as ''biobots''- being hardy, energetic, able to operate in confined spaces.

If such ''biobots'' could eventually be used to help locate survivors - such as by carrying sensors to detect their voices - there was a strong moral case for using them in the aftermath of earthquakes, such as in the recent Christchurch disaster, Dr King said.