For those unfamiliar with Microsoft's Kinect technology: It's a motion-sensing camera that lets users interact with video games they're playing. You'll know someone is using Kinect if they're sawing the air in front of them aimlessly while glued to their TV set. Though scientists have been using it for another reason"”to control insects by remote control to see how they move and build insect-like robotics much easier than starting from scratch.
The way these scientists have been able to control the movement and direction of the roaches also borders on the incredible. The Kinect system hooks up to a roach's antennae and cerci on the abdomen. Scientists then send minute electric charges to the cerci, causing the roach to scurry, as well as to the antennae to trick it into moving one direction or another. It's kind of like spurring a horse's sides to make it move and then yanking on its mane to direct its path.
Dr. Alper Bozkurt, employee at the university that heads the study, has tested his little creations in several scenarios. Performing the experiments in pitch dark has been very successful. His hope is that, with funding from the Natural Science Foundation's Cyber-Physical Systems program (wow, is that a mouthful), his team will be able to put little cockroach boots on the ground in three to four years.
No doubt, if all goes according to Bozhurt's plan, these robotic-cockroaches will be responsible for saving countless lives after catastrophes hit. That's the human element. But should we be concerned about the cockroach element at all? Yes, the little buggers are revolting, their spindly legs drive us up a wall, and the habit they have for infesting homes and subways is invasive"”it's about time we found a good use for them!
Not so fast. Questions I'd like answered first are: Do these little shocks to the insect's belly and antennae cause significant pain? Do they compound over time or does the cockroach with its minuscule brain forget about them almost instantaneously? Are the cockroaches separated from their families to do service for the humans? I admit, it's vital we invent new and improved technologies for first responses, but does enlisting a non-consenting creature, manipulating it, and having it do our bidding not transgress at least some animal ethics line?
Then again, cockroaches are pretty gross.