University of Otago bioethics lecturer Mike King discusses
remotely controlled ''cyborg cockroaches''. Photo by Gregor
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''
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.