Next time you happen across an enormous cockroach, check to see whether it’s got a backpack on. Then look for the person controlling its movements with a phone. The RoboRoach has arrived.

The RoboRoach is a system created by University of Michigan grads who have backgrounds in neuroscience, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo. They came up with the cyborg roach idea as part of an effort to show students what real brain spiking activity looks like using off-the-shelf electronics.

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Essentially the RoboRoach involves taking a real live cockroach, putting it under anesthesia and placing wires in its antenna. Then the cockroach is outfitted with a special lightweight little backpack Gage and Marzullo developed that sends pulses to the antenna, causing the neurons to fire and the roach to think there’s a wall on one side. So it turns. The backpack connects to a phone via Bluetooth, enabling a human user to steer the cockroach through an app.

Why? Why would anyone do this? ”We want to create neural interfaces that the general public can use,” the scientists say in a video. “Typically, to understand how these hardware devices and biological interfaces work, you’d have to go to graduate school in a neuro-engineering lab.” They added that the product is a learning tool, not a toy, and through it they hope to start a neuro-revolution.

Currently the duo’s Backyard Brains startup is raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to develop more fine-tuned prototypes, make them more affordable, and extend battery life. The startup says it will make the RoboRoach hardware by hand in an Ann Arbor hacker space.

This week the RoboRoach project was presented at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, and stirred up a bit of controversy. Although the RoboRoach creators say the stimulation doesn’t shock or harm the cockroach, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the BBC it has concerns about the technology. The neuroscientists’ opinion that the process doesn’t impose pain isn’t enough for the group.

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Living in New York City, I battled plenty of cockroach invaders, including the large kind required for RoboRoach. So I can’t really be impartial in this particular ethical debate. But if teachers want to use cockroaches to show kids how the brain works, that sounds OK by me. It’s only when the insects become cyborgs on their own that we’d really have to worry.

Photo: The remote-controlled RoboRoach in action. Credit: Backyard Brains