What are the ethics of the cyborg cockroach? (Franz Kafka edition)

At the TEDx conference in Detroit last week, RoboRoach #12 scuttled across the exhibition floor, pursued not by an exterminator but by a gaggle of fascinated onlookers. Wearing a tiny backpack of microelectronics on its shell, the cockroach—a member of the Blaptica dubiaspecies—zigzagged along the corridor in a twitchy fashion, its direction controlled by the brush of a finger against an iPhone touch screen (as seen in video above).

RoboRoach #12 and its brethren are billed as a do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment that allows students to create their own “cyborg” insects. The roach was the main feature of the TEDx talk by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of an educational company calledBackyard Brains. After a summer Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to let them hone their insect creation, the pair used the Detroit presentation to show it off and announce that starting in November, the company will, for $99, begin shipping live cockroaches across the nation, accompanied by a microelectronic hardware and surgical kits geared toward students as young as 10 years old.

And what is the problem exactly?

The roaches’ movements to the right or left are controlled by electrodes that feed into their antennae and receive signals by remote control—via the Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones. To attach the device to the insect, students are instructed to douse the insect in ice water to “anesthetize” it, sand a patch of shell on its head so that the superglue and electrodes will stick, and then insert a groundwire into the insect’s thorax. Next, they must carefully trim the insect’s antennae, and insert silver electrodes into them. Ultimately, these wires receive electrical impulses from a circuit affixed to the insect’s back.

Gage says the roaches feel little pain from the stimulation, to which they quickly adapt. But the notion that the insects aren’t seriously harmed by having body parts cut off is “disingenuous,” says animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C. “If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?”

The full story is here, interesting throughout and with a video too.

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But the notion that the insects aren’t seriously harmed by having body parts cut off is “disingenuous,” says animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C. “If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?"

I am not sure how we would react but that is not the question unless the good Professor plans to criminalize the burning of ants and so send a lot of 12 year olds to prison.

Given we can poison them, step on them, cut them up and otherwise brutally treat cockroaches, why not cut off their antennae? The same rules that apply in society as a whole ought to apply in the classroom. Surely the only sensible question to ask is whether a valid teaching purpose is served. I can't think of one involving roasted ants, but I am willing to believe one does exist.

I used to enjoy focusing sunlight on caterpillars with a magnifying glass (i hated them because they killed my mom's willow tree and made her sad) [I was 1o years old at the time]. I thought they deserved to suffer to pay for what they did. They didn't care what pain they were causing, so f**k them, I thought. One day my dad said in a disapproving tone, "That's cruel". He was right, I thought, even thought the caterpillar's didn't deserve mercy. So I stopped. You can step on the, you can poison them, you can throw them in the garbage, bury them or feed them to birds, but you can't cause them unnecessary pain for your own enjoyment. I'm not a philosopher but that seems correct to me. Not for the sake of the caterpillars but for the people inflicting the pain and everyone else getting used to seeing it, thinking it's normal.
But I wonder how inconvenienced the cockroaches really are. Would they be happier being stepped on?

They are not doing it for their own pleasure. I agree that would be wrong. They are doing it for Science.

They are doing it for the Terran Federation.

Imagine the pain the cockroach is going to feel when he goes self-aware and realizes he's just a cockroach.

Are they getting smarter? If that's the case, we have more to worry about.

This comments thread is sickeningly full of not-being-a-cockroach privilege. We can't even begin to have the discussion that needs to take place until everyone here checks their not-being-a-cockroach privilege.

Exploitation of the cockroach, or providing productive jobs: you be the judge.

"...doing it for Science"

I think the best you could argue is that it's for personal edification. What scientific goal will be achieved as a consequence of the amputating cockroach legs?

I feel like a hypocrite, because I'd kill a cockroach in a second if crawled in our kitchen, but pinning down a defenseless living organism and taking a limb from it feels cruel to me.

You clearly know nothing about science. "What use could this possibly have? these crazy people are just trying to learn more, how selfish!"

Suppose a member of your family came out as a cockroach. Would you treat him like this? Umm.... quite possibly, according to Kafka.

"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time for no good reason"
-Jack Handey

“If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?”

Like the teacher was letting them be normal kids.

They're doing it to annoy their sisters. Once a RoboRat kit goes on sale all hell will break loose.

Exactly what I've been saying: we put microchips in everyone's brain and run the whole economy by remote control. Just think of it as having a personal trainer.

The NSA needs this. To deny it would seriously weaken our national security.

The Jews are going to love this:
http://kplu.org/post/uw-researchers-use-brain-one-control-body-another

Insects are just little automatons. There's no 'thinking' going on. They are basically cellular automata, with automatic responses triggered by stimuli. They don't have enough neurons in their brains to formulate any kind of conceptual content, emotions, etc. Let's not anthropomorphize them into little creatures with feelings. You should worry about mistreating them about as much as you'd worry about not meeting the needs of the people in "The Sims".

The human species is in a war of extermination against the roaches and we will probably fail.

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