Though they sound like a weapon in a super-villain's arsenal, remote-controlled cockroaches are actually forces for good, according to the researchers who hacked the brains of the reviled bugs and bent them to the will of their human controllers. The key to the process is an “electronic backpack” that’s wired into the roach’s natural sensing mechanisms. By manipulating a remote control, not unlike one used for remote-controlled cars, researchers can guide the roach down a prescribed path.
As North Carolina State University’s Tahmid Latif explains in this new video from National Geographic, “When we stimulate their right antenna, they think that there’s an obstacle to the right and it makes them turn left.”
NC State professor Alper Bozkurt dreams of deploying these remote-controlled roaches — BioBots, as he calls them — in humanitarian disaster zones. The enslaved roaches would use their natural agility and a small, unidirectional microphone array to work their way toward a sound source. For example, a person buried under a pile of rubble. The precise location of the person in need of rescue would be relayed from the roach, back to first responders. “They are moving about on their free will and we are just nudging them in appropriate locations of our interest,” Latif says.
Though the topic of morality isn’t addressed in the above video, it’s hard to not think twice about implanting sensors in an autonomous, living being and turning it into a working drone. Given that roaches often end their encounters with humans either squashed or poisoned, though, this might be considered the better option.