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Controversial iPhone App Lets Users Control a Cockroach's Brain -- Will Apple Allow It?


An app that asks users to hack the nervous system of a living creature seems more worthy of scrutiny than other programs that were banned.

A US company is generating controversy for making a device that allows users to control a cockroach's brain using an iPhone. Will this make more children interested in neuroscience, or turn them into heartless psychopaths? Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) might be the one to decide the project's fate.

Backyard Brains of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has developed a robotic "backpack" called RoboRoach, sold for $99, that can be attached to a cockroach (assuming there's one handy). After a little "surgery," the backpack allows users to control the roach's movement via the Bluetooth in your phone. It works by stimulating the nerves in the roach's antennae to make it think that it hit a wall, prompting it to run to the left or right. The developers say that it works on the same principles that allow doctors to treat Parkinson's disease and deafness. They hope the app will inspire a new generation of youngsters, prompting them to become curious about the wonders of neuroscience, and hopefully lead them to someday cure neurological ailments. They say that a fifth of the world will soon have such a brain disease for which there is no cure.

The group raised over $12,000 on Kickstarter for this project, and you can already pre-order your roach cyborg kit on their website. For now, the RoboRoach comes with a toy controller, but they will all eventually work with any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone.

Naturally, this sort of project ran into ethical questions. It does sound a bit like the sort of thing that would produce the next Josef Mengele. The developers say that the process is not harmful at all, and the cockroach can continue to mate and function as a normal member of roach society after users have their way with them.

The surgery bit (in the video above) is what gives some pause. It requires first putting the roach in ice-cold water, using sandpaper to rub off the waxy coating on its head, using superglue to attach the electrodes to its head, and poking a hole in its thorax with a needle to insert a wire. The next step is to cut off most of the antennae and insert the electrodes into what's left of them.

And voila! You can now command a cockroach to turn left or right with just a tap of your finger. For up to 10 turns, that is. After that, the roach learns to ignore the signal. If you still want to have your fun messing with it, you can hang on for 20 minutes, and it will work again.

You would think that a cockroach, something most New Yorkers see as a less desirable visitor in their apartments than an alien, would test the limits of empathy. But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has already come out against the project, saying that it is painful for the roach and could potentially warp young minds rather than inspire them.

"Not only is RoboRoach harmful to roaches, it's potentially harmful to the cyborgs' handlers. It could desensitize them to the feelings of those who are weaker than they are. One might just as well call it a 'bully starter kit,'" PETA said, according to The Blaze.

PETA has asked the Michigan Attorney General to stop this, saying that the process constitutes practicing veterinary medicine without a license, which is a felony.

We can only guess what state regulators will do to save the cockroaches from being tortured, but I would add that there is another hurdle in the way: Apple. There is nothing forcing it to carry the app, and keeping it might prompt the PETA activists to target Cupertino. Apple has booted less controversial apps from its App Store. Even Bang With Friends, a program that lets you see which of your Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) friends are into you, was removed for a while. Without a presence in the official store, only jailbroken iPhones can use the app. Then again, the type of person willing to perform surgery on a cockroach to hack its brain can probably do that.

Twitter: @vincent_trivett
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