In it for the Money: Cockroach Thanksgiving

How I learned to stop worrying and love the RoboRoach

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Come November, Ann Arbor’s own Backyard Brains will be shipping their educational RoboRoach kits. In just a few E-Z steps you (yes, you!) will upgrade a standard issue Blaberus discoidalis cockroach into your very own iPhone-controlled insectoid robo-slave – and just in time for the Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday Season!

I know, I know, you have questions – and almost certainly some objections – when it comes to icing a live cockroach, mutilating its antennae, drilling a hole in its back, and taking control of its brain – with a goddamn phone. [1]

Readers, I share your moral panic. But I have walked in the Valley of Death, have been prodded with the SpikerBox, have bought coffee and a cookie for the lead roach-roboticisizer, have met their techno-insectoid minions, and here, on the far side of the vale, I want to tell you this:

I am not worried about the kids who unwrap a Backyard Brains RoboRoach kit sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of the year; I’m worried about the kids who don’t.

Meet Backyard Brains

How did we arrive at this dystopian sci-fi future, where any person with a phone and a strong stomach might harnesses the cockroach as his or her unwilling beast of tiny burdens? It began with a pair of University of Michigan researchers (a neuroscientist and an engineer, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo) who wanted an affordable, portable way to demonstrate to school children how neurons work.

Their solution was the SpikerBox, a bioamplifier that allows you to hear and see action potentials (i.e., “spikes”) moving across living neurons. Predictably, the first demo subjects were cockroaches – which are cheap, readily available, and not covered by restrictive research protocols.

Here’s a little video of the basic SpikerBox in action:

By 2013 Backyard Brains had released the EMG SpikerBox and opened the door to hearing your own neurons firing without having to shove needles in your arm.

As luck would have it, I’ve inadvertently been following along with Backyard Brains since their early days: I saw them showing off the SpikerBox at the first Detroit Maker Faire in 2010, where they were making discorporated roach legs dance by directly applying music to the nerves. I experienced the EMG SpikeBox first-hand at this year’s Maker Faire, where I also met my first RoboRoach in person.

But that wasn’t my first brush with the roach. Like a lot of folks, I was introduced to this new and exciting ethical dilemma in June, with Backyard Brains’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the most recent iteration of the RoboRoach [2].

Here’s the surgery instructions from an earlier version of the RoboRoach. (The hardware and software have changed significantly, but the roach surgery largely has not.)

If this video seems long, maybe just skip to around 3:25 and see how you feel about RoboRoach [3]. If you feel sorta-kinda like the girl in the center of the frame at 2:34 in the SpikerBox talk video, you are not alone. Lots and lots and lots of folks feel that way. And even if I didn’t precisely share the apparent sentiments of many of the kids in the SpikerBox audience, I’m going to be honest: I definitely didn’t feel right about RoboRoach.

After first watching that surgery video I waited two months to write about it, until I saw the RoboRoach in person at Maker Faire Detroit. And then I waited two-and-a-half more months, until I could actually talk to some folks at Backyard Brains.

After some wrangling (these roach wranglers are in high demand) I finally wound up having coffee and cookies with Backyard Brains engineer Bill Reith in early October. Bill has a biomedical engineering degree from the University of Michigan, has logged countless lab hours working with animals and their neurons, and has been with the RoboRoach project from the very beginning. He’s also a Michigander (both by birth and rearing), is taller than me, slimmer than me, has longer hair than me, and a better beard than me – in short, by every metric I use, he is absolutely unimpeachable [4].

As a group, the Backyard Brainers are pretty inured to the ethical debate associated with their work. When Bill took me to the Backyard Brains lab – a cramped second-floor suite on State Street, with a lovely view of tarpapered roofs – one of the techs, upon hearing I was a reporter [5], rolled her eyes as she sighed “ethical concerns, again?”

Pretty early in our conversation back at the coffee shop, Bill had quite gladly addressed this head-on:

When this ethical question comes up, I understand it. I mean, when I first worked in a neuroengineering lab I wasn’t, like, Alright! Roll up my sleeves; let’s work with some rats! I had questions as well. And that’s, I think, totally natural, especially when you see something like this in, you know, like a Maker Faire or on the streets of Ann Arbor. … Part of it, it’s kind of a good thing, because we want to have people ask questions, we want to have people curious about it, and then we want to have people understand afterward, and educate themselves about what’s going on here and the reality of this type of technology in the world today.

Talking to Bill I got the sense that there are three broad categories of ethical discomfort [6] on display when folks first meet a SpikerBox of RoboRoach:

  1. “Holy Crap, Don’t Do That to Me!” 
  2. Pain versus Dread
  3. Hurt No Beings

“Holy Crap, Don’t Do That to Me!”

This entire school of ethical complaint took me by surprise, because it had never, ever dawned on me to take personally what was being done to the cockroach [7]. But according to Bill, that’s a notably high percentage of the reaction they get: Folks see the cockroach, imagine their own antennae (or whatever) getting hacked off, their own carapace being pierced with a hypodermic needle, their own movements controlled via telephone – and then their logical faculties pretty much flee in revulsion. No one wants to be hacked up by school children; no one wants to live life as a robo-zombie.

The problem here is one of anthropomorphization and, subsequently, false analogy.

First and foremost there’s almost no analogy between a human and a cockroach. There’s a lot going on there physiologically (which we’ll deal with below), but just to take a really super clear example: There are tons of situations humans quite enjoy (for example, lying on a warm, sunny beach, or spending an evening reading in solitude in front of a roaring fire) that a cockroach would actively flee. Likewise, while you likely would hate wallowing in a vast sea of rotting bok-choy and rancid frier grease or wedging yourself in a dude’s ear, cockroaches seem to love it. To start by saying “a cockroach is a being very much like me, with a life defined by hopes, dreams, and fears very similar to mine” is folly; building an ethical scaffolding on that foundation is an invitation to a quick fall and broken back.

That aside, anthropomorphization is, by definition, entirely self-centered. I’m not objecting to what is being done to the cockroach, per se, or to any idea of cockroach quality-of-life; I’m objecting to what I imagine might be done to me. It is likely an outgrowth of our inclination toward sympathy (the acknowledgment of another’s apparent pain) – but it falls short of empathy (vicariously experiencing the other’s perspective). It falls short because it totally ignores the complicated grey zone of what it means to be a cockroach, instead substituting a tiny me in that same place.

A cockroach is not a tiny me; it is a cockroach. How would I feel if someone pulled back my wing cover and poked a hole in my nerveless carapace? Dude, that question makes no sense. There’s no meaningful analog between a chitinous exoskeleton and skin, and I don’t have a frikkin wing to pull back. It’s like asking a paramecium how it would feel if someone put a Yellen clamp on its penis and cut away its foreskin.

If we want to show true empathy for the cockroach – which I applaud – then it’s probably best to keep in mind that these cockroaches are bred as feeder animals. Their options are: (1) being subjects of experiments, regardless how amoral; or (2) grub for bearded dragons and tarantulas. In terms of quality-of-life, the RoboRoach spends the rest of its days safe in a terrarium, eating old produce, making babies, and hiding in toilet paper tubes. His or her brothers and sisters don’t enjoy so nearly long a life, and their third act is spent fleeing from a brutal predator with no chance of escape.

Mind Control And The Slippery Slope

Another branch of the “Don’t stick that thing in me!” school of ethical revulsion are concerns about mind control, and the RoboRoach representing our baby step towards universal human robo-zombie enslavement.

Let’s just say that these concerns are misplaced.

First off, you and me and everyone we know are a lot more complicated than a roach (which will be covered in just a minute). This product demonstrates neural stimulation, and that’s a far cry from mind control.

Having directly observed several cyborg roaches, I’ve got to say that Bill’s reassurances are pretty reassuring: Even post-op and hooked to a “controller,” these are still cockroaches, and a cockroach often makes for a pretty recalcitrant steed. Even though they are receiving direct electrical neural stimulation, the effect is more analogous to a bridled horse than a brainwashed Frank Sinatra [8].

Pain Versus Dread

What about pain? Watch the video of that surgery. Even if the cockroach is just fine with its ultimate fate as a cyborg monstrosity, it’s obviously distressed during the process, obviously in pain.

But, minus our bias as sympathetic observers, this isn’t obvious at all. The roach is reacting to its situation, and I’m interpreting that as pain and distress, but I also mourn the Pencil Named Steve and cringe at the curb-stomping scene in “American History X” and every single aspect of the trailer for “The Human Centipede” – all of which are verifiably fictitious. Humans regularly attribute non-existent emotional states to inanimate objects, words on a page, flickering LCD displays, internal combustion engines, weather patterns, sex workers. We are absolutely abysmal at objectively evaluating possible internal states, and easily fooled by artists, conmen, and our own expectations.

What do we know about a cockroach’s experience of pain and its similarity to ours?

Frankly, we seem to know that it probably isn’t similar at all. To begin with, we (like most any vertebrates) sense pain via specialized sensory neurons called nociceptors, which these roaches lack. The facile conclusion, then, is that they don’t feel pain – or certainly don’t feel it by the same mechanism as we do. (In the same way, several of my in-laws, who are colorblind, don’t see red as I do; they simply lack the proper receptors.)

But framing the issue in terms of the physical sensation of pain is a red herring. As Bill so aptly put it, “pain isn’t just some chemical in your brain.” It doesn’t really matter if cockroaches have the same sort of pain receptors we do, or some other kind of pain receptors, or no pain receptors at all, because the thing we call “pain” has so little to do with the simple impulse running along that chain of neurons to our brains, and so much to do with our expectations and values.

I have a tattoo. I got this by paying a nice man $60 to inject ink into my skin with a needle thousands of times. It took a long while, it hurt like the dickens during the process – an ever-increasing burn that somehow managed to get hotter and hotter without ever cresting into open flame – and was sore for a good while after. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about a new tattoo since summer, researching design elements, deciding how I’d budget for it. I’m excited by the prospect.

Meanwhile, it took me five months to “make time” to get a routine blood draw my doctor had ordered, a procedure that took all of 10 minutes. I “accidentally” lost the paperwork three times, and invented literally scores of excuses for why today was a bad day for that cholesterol check. The tattoo hurt – and, objectively, hurt a lot more than the blood draw – but I dreaded that blood draw, wrapped up as it was in a complex quilt of anxiety and apprehension and shame.

Pain is just pain.

We regularly and gladly inflict pain on ourselves and our loved ones because medical science demands it, or our notion of the God Thing demands it, or nature demands it, or just plain old practicality demands it.

But to inflict dread, to purposefully cause that suffering – regardless of whether or not we do so with physical pain – is clearly beyond the pale.

So, can the cockroach feel dread? Highly unlikely. Dread requires a reflective capacity that the cockroach almost certainly lacks. A cockroach brain, such as it is, is a helluva lot more diffuse and compartmentalized than ours, with a lot of the heavy-lifting performed by ganglia distributed throughout their bodies. Much of their behavior – even relatively complex behavior, like scuttling around attempting to hide in the shadow of your shoe – is essential a reflex arc, with no intervening, centralized evaluation or decision making.

Heck, any species of cockroach can live without its head for a week or more – wandering around, hiding from stuff, making babies – because there just isn’t much going on upstairs. Again, this isn’t to say that the cockroach has no inner life, just that its inner life is not like yours, and so making decisions about what that life means based on your experiences is unfounded (at best).

Hurt No Beings

The core of this third – and often default – ethical objection: a complete rejection of the causing of any suffering.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to level with you: I don’t know what to do with this, because so often it is the result of stunning naiveté.

Quick personal anecdote: In my twenties I volunteered with my then girlfriend (now wife) at the migrant camps around Adrian, Mich. [9]. Many of these workers and their kids had never had a physical or dental check-up, so small medical teams from the University of Michigan would head out to the camps and provide basic preventative care, gynecological exams, perform school physicals, answer health and lifestyle questions, etc.

My girlfriend (now wife) and I both spoke Spanish. Sometimes we served as translators, helping laborers fill out their forms or communicate with the doctors. More often we hung out with the kids and kept them busy so their folks could receive medical services. Accommodations weren’t great for migrant workers in the camps, and neither was the pay – remember, we need to keep the price low on agricultural commodities. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! In these conditions, the one affordable treat parents could offer their kids was Faygo. Consequently, lots of these kids we played catch and soccer with had visible black cavities pitting the outsides of their teeth.

Pro-tip: Cavities that bad are dangerous to children; you get an infection, it quickly spreads to the brain, you have swelling and seizures – it’s not awesome.

If you eat your half-plate of fruit and vegetables at every meal, and not every scrap is coming out of your yard, then part of the cost of your healthy diet is likely those Hispanic kids’ teeth – their health, their shortened lives, their bad backs and knees, and their constant objectification as a political football.

During this period I happened to go out to dinner with my sister and one of her childhood friends. That friend was on a vegan kick, and she declined the honey-mustard dressing. You shouldn’t eat honey, she explained, because of some insane bullshit she believed about bees being wantonly decapitated as a part of the honey harvesting process.

Instead, as I recall, she had vinaigrette on her salad. All those greens and walnuts and sliced apples and raisins – so cruelty free.

Cruelty free, provided you don’t count the suffering of Hispanic workers and their children.

Costs And Benefits

Does this seem like a straw man? After all, not to be emotionally cold, but we obviously have to accept some suffering. We need to eat; some cutworms and chickens and migrant farm worker kids are going to die in the process – cost of doing business, dog-eat-dog, yadda yadda blah-blah.

But Dave, this business with mangling the roaches is so needless. It’s a toy. No one is benefitting from this!

Except that we are, and we already have. This technology isn’t substantively different from the increasingly common cochlear implants restoring hearing to the deafened – and granting it to the congenitally deaf. Bill Reith – that Backyard Brains engineer who’s worked with the RoboRoach from the start – cut his teeth working in rat labs researching deep brain stimulation which, among other miracles, can bring relief to Parkinson’s sufferers, easing and even eliminating debilitating tremors.

The development of this technology is directly accelerated by things like the SpikerBox and RoboRoach. This project is Open Source, with the expectation that users and experiments will feed their innovations back into the code base. For example, one problem in any neural stimulation situation is habituation: The nerve becomes accustomed to this absolutely regular electrical stimulation. Noting this, some high schoolers using a beta RoboRoach tried feeding just noise, as opposed to regular pulses, into the electrodes. They succeeded in delaying the habituation, and that innovation is now part of the stock RoboRoach package.

In a similar way, another RoboRoacher has combined “insect” SpikerBox and “human” EMG SpikerBox functionality to read the signals going to his biceps and use them to actuate a severed cockroach leg. He can use a cockroach leg as a prosthetic limb. Nightmarish? Yes. But blood transfusion was once exclusively the domain of scifi-horror stories, as were organ transplants, skin grafts, and most of modern psychotropic medicine.

And beyond those direct benefits (which, granted, will be few – even if some are spectacular) is an indirect, but powerful one: More people will have some sort of meaningful grip on what neuroscience is. The technological revolution of my lifetime – the Information Age – wasn’t driven by poindexters creating small and faster computers; it was driven by Average Joes and Janes understanding what the hell computers were, and why it might be neat to buy them and use them, and insert them into every damn facet of our lives. Inventions with no market wither on the vine.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Roboroach

I’m going to level with you: My ick here wasn’t based on any of the Common Ethical Concerns above, and my approval isn’t based on science literacy and deep-brain stimulation. I don’t really care about the states of the lives of cockroaches, and I’m well aware of the fact that advances in quality-of-life are rarely evenly distributed. Or more bluntly: Five years from now every old dude is gonna have a bionic ear, but the kids picking your cukes are still gonna be enjoying all the benefits of mid-19th century dentistry.

What I care about is the states of the souls of the kids who get RoboRoach for Christmas, and likewise the states of the souls of those who do not.

I’ve met plenty of folks – like the no-honey-mustard-dressing gal – who refuse to be a party to any living being suffering harm. None of them have lived on farms where they grew their own food and cotton, wove their own cloth, brewed up their own biodiesel from peanut oil pressed from their own peanuts, then poured it into the tank of a tractor they forged from steel they smelted from ore they dug up on their own land, then drove it out into the fields on tires they vulcanized after long hours of tapping their rubber trees … You get the picture: They haven’t really removed themselves from the Economy of Pain; they’ve made some surface level changes, and chosen to remain ignorant of all of the deeper repercussions.

I’ve also spent some time with a variety of family farmers, hunters, fishermen, and some fairly off-grid hippies. They’re a helluva lot more realistic about the amount of suffering that goes in to their meals, their garments, their devices, their lifestyles. Mark Sponslor – my favorite hog breeder – doesn’t sympathize with his pigs; he empathizes with them.

More importantly, he is compassionate towards his charges. He understands his pigs and the lives they lead, and works to make sure those piggie lives are comfortable – not in human terms, but in pig terms. He would never inflict suffering on them, would never neglect them – and yet he knows that the vast majority of them and their descendants are bound to slaughter.

Similarly, no adult hunter or fisherman I have known shows glee at the death of an animal. At least one hunter I’m close with admits to saying his grace not over his dinner plate, but under the trees as he’s dressing out a caracas, because that’s clearly the moment for which he is grateful. Everything after that is a simple consequence of the primary sacrifice that deer has been party to.

I’ve met Bill and the other Backyard Brainiacs. Let me be clear: Legally and within their field, the standard is that there is no moral obligation toward invertebrates (such as cockroaches). They are well within their rights and the standard operating procedure to store their roaches in naked glass jars – without food, water, or anyplace to hide from the light – and flush them when they are done. And yet they take every measure to be sure that their roach collaborators live comfortable roach lives and die of natural causes. In no way is Bill callous toward his subjects; Hell, he’s clearly affectionate toward them. “They’re actually really fun little animals,” he noted absently as a post-op roach bigger than my thumb and not under phone-control climbed up his arm and toward his (OMFG-I’M-GONNA-FREAK!) face.

And Bill arrived at his compassion in the rat lab, where he implanted and maintained the neural stimulus shanks embedded in rats brains. And, just to head of any possible confusion, it is beyond dispute that rats are much more akin to humans than cockroaches are; there are protocols in place governing their use in labs, and by all accounts it is a much more emotionally fraught business.

“Working in the lab made me more aware of the cost of [research], and more up front with myself about it. I ended up understanding the lives that they lead as lab animals.”

I want to stress that these working relationships with animals are fundamentally different from most pet ownership. We mostly anthropomorphize our pets: We pull them into our homes, assign them names, grant them personhood, and then make decisions for them based on our own internal states. Very often we work very hard to subvert or alter their fundamental natures.

But working with animals as animals demands that we understand them and their perspectives – which is why sportsmen and ranchers so often become some of the most powerful voices for protecting the animals they’re killing. Sportsmen are integral to ecological conservation movements. Mark Sponslor has been instrumental in returning the breed of pigs he raises (and eats) to viability. It’s not ironic; it’s entirely logical.

But here’s the rub: We aren’t a rural people any more. An ever dwindling number of us are hunters, farmers, or ranchers. But we still accept the bounty of the fields and forest, we just do so at second (and third and fourth) hand. And our technology is really no different: Someone suffered deplorable conditions to get the coal to generate your electricity, the tantalum for the capacitors in your microwave and oven and laptop, to build your iPad, Hell, to code your video games.

By the time the food (or laptop of medical devices) hits our table, the sacrifices have been made, whether we think to give thanks for it or not.

Let’s be realistic: If you are diagnosed with Parkinson’s and the doctor suggests a deep-brain stim implant, you are not going to say “I’m sorry; too many rats experienced pain stimuli in the making of that device.” You are going to say “Thank God! Thank you doctor! Thank you Obamacare and BCBS!”

Personally, I think you should also say, “Thank you, noble rats! Thank you, under-compensated grad students!” But that’s me. I also think our Thanksgiving grace should focus more on migrant workers than distant Gods. (I’m full up of notions.)

Giving Thanks

Repeatedly Bill reminded me that Backyard Brains, as a project “isn’t really about cockroaches.” It’s about neuroscience, about concretely demonstrating to regular folks that “we’re very electrical beings,” and that our brains can be just as immediately understood – in a functional sense – as our hearts and lungs and laptops.

But I don’t think it’s really about that, either.

RoboRoach isn’t about roaches, and isn’t about neurons: It’s about people living in Post-Industrial 21st Century America – people who will never have to slaughter their dinner or acknowledge the orphans of the garment factory worker who sewed their t-shirts. It’s about acknowledging and accepting the myriad sacrifices that are made to propitiate the Weird Gods of our Life, Liberty, and Property. And maybe, from there, we develop the compassion to acknowledge that sacrifice, feel it as it is felt, and do something to be sure that it is both proportionate and humane.

So, it’s especially apropos that the RoboRoach will be shipping in November, the month of our American Thanksgiving, because the core lesson this educational “toy” can teach our children is in the primacy of Giving Thanks when you live at the top of the food chain.


[1] Parents of teens: Please insert your own “a phone already has control of my kid’s brain” joke here.

[2] The first RoboRoach – now called “RoboRoach beta” – was a sort of clunky kittbashing kludge using a custom board to bridge a live roach and a toy remote control. This newest version is lighter, more flexible, and uses all-custom hardware controlled by a smartphone app. Ethics aside, it really is a slick product.

[3] This Engadget piece about the Kickstarter campaign was the first article I saw flagging the ethical squickiness of this situation, and the source for this video. Incidentally, if you are skipping out on all video links, then here’s a quick verbal description of the surgery: You take a honking huge-ass cockroach, soak it in ice water to anesthetize it, snip down its antennae (which have both olfactory and touch sensors, and are the primary instrument of roach navigation), run a hair-thin silver wire into each severed feeler, then poke a hole in the roach’s back and insert a third tiny wire. Glue all this down, connect a little Bluetooth comms board about the size of a dollar coin (but much lighter), and you’re good to go.

[4] If this seems out of place, consider how not out of place it would have been for me to drop in some physical description had I been meeting with a Betty Reith. Anyway, for reals though, he’s a handsome dude, very affable, and with good prospects. You can reach him through the Backyard Brains website.

[5] I was quick to correct Bill; I’m a columnist. Calling me a reporter is like calling a Miller High Life the “Champaign of Beers.”

[6] Fascinatingly absent among the ethical concerns, so far as I’ve been able to tell, are concerns about funding. Backyard Brains has been supported by DARPA grants – which always gets my black helicopters humming. Another major supporter is the government of Chile – which probably seems benign now, so I’ll take a sec to remind readers of Chile’s disturbing track record on the use of electrical stimulation to modify political opinions. Chile, always innovating with the biomedical application of a few volts.

[7] Or, quite obviously, to personally identify with the fate of the hog or cow or chicken or deer or lobster I might nosh.

[8] When it comes to “Manchurian Candidate” scenarios, I’d suppose folks are probably more worried about a murderously brainwashed Laurence Harvey, but what’s always creeped me out in that film are the endorsements of Staff Sargent Raymond Shaw – who, come to think of it, really is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

[9] Lots of agriculture is still highly manual work. My wife grew up in rural West Michigan. Out there the prototypical first job was picking blueberries, and conditions for non-citizen workers there weren’t much different than what we saw in the apple orchards of Adrian, or what I later heard reported by folks who grew up picking cucumbers in California. In many regions detassling corn is likewise still migrant piecework. In other words, this isn’t an abstract story about Adrian, Mich, in 1990-something; this is a concrete story about agriculture in America today.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!


  1. October 23, 2013 at 10:34 am | permalink

    Hey, the founders of Backyard Brains gave an Ignite talk in the Fall of 2010 at Ignite Ann Arbor 4. You can watch it here: [video]

  2. By Milt
    October 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm | permalink

    First and foremost: EWWWW!

    But then, more importantly: thank you for the thoughtful article. Right on the money about our separation from the cycle of production, be it food or coal or what-not. I tend to think that our distance from the process of making the things we consume will eventually be our undoing. Which is gloomy of me, I know. Maybe it will be a fun undoing, where we party like it’s 1999?