Brainwashed Bugs

James McCoull examines Dr. Satos brainwashed bugs

14th December 2016

We've all seen a toy robot at some point in our life, maybe even specifically a toy insect. Simple motions, such as a walking pattern, applied to a set of plastic legs with motors and wires. Nothing too fancy there. But now, engineers in Singapore have gone one step further: not a toy, but a living insect, controlled with circuitry. Cyborg beetles.

The team of researchers lead by Dr. Hirotaka Sato have been working on large beetles, wiring into their leg and wing muscles in order to selectively stimulate the limbs of the hapless insects. By doing this, they can directly control the walking gait and even flight of the cyborgs, though the latter is still in early stages. In a video for Motherboard, journalist Alejandro Tauber tested the technology currently used to guide the beetles in flight: with a Nintendo Wii controller, he was able to direct the beetle to steer to the left and right using the directional buttons. Dr. Sato and his team demonstrated how the electrical signals could be used to directly cause the beetle to step, run and gallop at varying speeds.

Now, engineers in Singapore have gone one step further: not a toy, but a living insect, controlled with circuitry. Cyborg beetles.

It's certainly fascinating technology, but I have to admit feeling a little disturbed at the sight of the beetle, helpless on its back and plugged into a computer causing it to twitch and scurry against its will. The engineers confirmed that the procedure is apparently not a painful one, nor does it have adverse effects on the lifespan of the subjects; yet the simple notion of stripping free will and bodily autonomy away so directly is, regardless, a troubling one. The technology to 'hijack' a living creature's nervous system is in its early stages, but it's easy to imagine where this might lead.

Regardless, Dr. Sato was optimistic that the technology had great potential as an instrument of good. Suggested applications (with the addition of more apparatus such as heat sensors) included search and rescue operations in the aftermath of a natural disaster, wherein people might be trapped under rubble and therefore inaccessible to anything other than small creatures, or the apprehension of terrorists and criminals. With a little more work, we might be seeing these little amalgamations of carapace and computer scurrying through collapsed buildings, buzzing around crime scenes, or any number of other possible applications. And after that - who knows?

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