Cockroaches fitted with brain-control devices are being steered with precision by their masters in China. These little biological robots could one day be useful in disaster management and rescue, in regions where it’s impossible for humans to venture.
Engineering students in China have devised a brain-to-brain interface to control live cockroaches, transforming these critters into tiny biological robots that obediently follow the directions of their human handlers. Using the interface, the students have successfully steered living cockroaches along S-shaped, as well as Z-shaped, paths using nothing more than their minds.
The students from Shanghai Jiao Tong University presented their research via a video presentation at the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s annual conference. They fitted one of the members with a Bluetooth electroencephalogram (EEG) headset. As if straight from a science fiction movie, the member was asked to think about guiding himself through the S- or Z-shaped pathway. His brainwaves were then translated into electrical impulses, which were wirelessly sent to an electronic backpack receiver attached to the cockroach.
The electrical impulses were hooked onto the antennae nerves of the cockroach through a microelectrode implanted into the animal’s head. These nerves control the cockroach’s behavior and hence can be manipulated to govern the movement of the critter.
Though mind-controlled cockroaches are certainly not a new concept and have been attempted twice before, the Chinese students believe the rapid miniaturization of technology allows a lot more possibilities. The primary intention of the team is to help survey teams map out complex terrains. However, the eventual goal is clear – create James Cameron’s Avatar-like neurologically connected biological beings. In a press-release the students explained as follows.
“Our research extended the traditional brain-computer interface technology and tentatively attempted the avatar brain-brain communication.”
What they meant was the new system eliminates the need of a computer to control the animals. Since the brain-to-brain connection takes place over Bluetooth, the range may be limited, but the system is wireless, and future iterations may have higher range, as well. The demonstration has won them second prize in the conference’s student video competition.
In its current iteration, the students can only control one cockroach individually, but they are planning to upgrade the algorithm and interface to control several of these critters simultaneously. Though the approach is scientific, anyone can guess that the military might certainly be interested in a cockroach army that obediently follows direction.
[Image Credit: Shanghai Jiao Tong University]