The minds behind Backyard Brains, a neurological education and outreach company, are bringing the first commercially available cyborgs to the general public. They landed on Kickstarter Monday, and they’re wooing support from Internet backers worldwide. (Videos)
The RoboRoach, as it’s called, has been in the works for a couple years, says Backyard Brains co-founder Greg Gage, but now it’s going commercial. After working through several iterations, Gage and his lab mate from the University of Michigan, Tim Marzullo (also a co-founder of Backyard Brains), on Wednesday are giving a talk at theTEDGlobal conference in Scotland to discuss where and how their invention fits into society — and ultimately, the need for neuro-education in the pre-college years.
Twenty percent of the world’s population, explains Gage, will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
“And if you were to write down all the cures for neurological diseases,” he says, “you wouldn’t use your pen at all, because there are no cures for any of those diseases.”
But that’s where Gage says Backyard Brains aims to come in. The company, established in 2009, sells low-cost kits to turn any and all interested amateurs into neuroscientists. (The company’s bread-and-butter product is the SpikerBox, an electrophysiological contraption that allows you to record the brains of insects in real time.) And the RoboRoach, according to the creators, employs the same neuraltechnology used in treatments for Parkinson’s as well as the make-up in cochlear implants. Now, to be clear, the RoboRoach is not the answer to the diseases; but it’s meant to be a font of inspiration.
When Gage and Marzullo were finishing their Ph.D.s in Michigan’s neural engineering lab, they made an effort to teach neuroscience in high schools and grade schools. Gage says he wanted to show kids there can be a career in science during the beginning stages of their education.
The initial problem, says Gage, was that the duo was teaching with gimmicks: simulating axon functions with jump ropes, using ping pong and Nerf balls to represent neurotransmitters.
“We kept thinking that we were doing a good job, but the kids weren’t really learning,” Gage tells Mashable, “because it was more fun to throw a Nerf ball at your friend than it was to learn about a science.”
The trick was finding out how to make the “amazing stuff” Gage and Marzullo were doing in their research lab (e.g. recording spikes from the brain in real time) portable enough to bring into classrooms.
Because of the Animal Welfare Act, though, they couldn’t bring rats into classrooms, and to boot, their lab equipment cost more than $40,000. Insects became the perfect match, explains Gage, as invertebrates are not protected under the federal law.
“They also have neurons that are similar to humans. Not exactly the same,” Gage says, “but the essence is the same; they both fire spikes, and so, if you can record those spikes, you’re actually kind of seeing what’s happening in your brain.”
Backyard Brains’ efforts to make neuroscience portable and classroom-accessible have culminated with the RoboRoach.
Setting up the RoboRoach requires a bit of surgical maneuvering (including ice-water-induced anesthesia) and precision. Users will have to insert wires into the roach’s antennae and attach a temporary “backpack” to the bug’s thorax. The backpack communicates directly with the neurons (located in the roach’s antennae) via small electrical pulses, and by using an iPhone app, you can temporarily control the critter. By swiping left or right on your device, the roach’s neurons will fire, prompting it to “wall-follow” or turn. Cockroaches use their antennae to sense the proximity of walls or surfaces, so the signals trick the bug into thinking there is a wall on its right or left side.
Gage and Marzullo underline the fact that the RoboRoach is not a toy, but rather a learning tool. Using the RoboRoach, students can learn more about neural control of behavior; learning and memory; adaptation and habituation; stimuli selection; and the effect of randomness.
“All of these are basic neuroscience principles that kids can really see,” Gage says, “because they’re controlling [the roaches] with their iPhones.”
Of course, when science and nature mix, the end result is usually at least a handful of detractors, and Gage concedes that Backyard Brains has been met with some opposition — mostly in the form of anti-mind control sentiments.
“People have this slippery slope argument that if you were to control cockroaches, next would be dogs and then humans,” Gage says. “I defend that in the fact that this is an almost momentary trick that you can play for two minutes and then the cockroaches outsmart you and they adapt. So the same thing would happen in a monkey or a human.”
Others say the project is cruel because of the shocking, poking and snipping of the insect. But Gage and Marzullo ensure no roaches are ever harmed in the making of the RoboRoach, as they’ve found that when you remove a leg or an antenna, it regenerates within 100 or so days.
he campaign, at time of writing, had reached approximately $2,000 (one-fifth of its $10,000 first stretch goal). With just under 30 days left to pledge, Backyard Brains is looking for support to develop a couple more prototypes, more affordable hardware and gear, and, in due time, app capability for Android devices.
About three groups in the world, Gage explains, could design the RoboRoach, but they get millions of dollars from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The RoboRoach was actually a failed DARPA project; it didn’t work quite the way it was supposed to, as the cockroaches, after a while, habituate to the stimulation they receive. “To an engineer, that sucks,” Gage says. “You want to be able to control the roaches forever. But if you’re trying to teach neuroscience, that’s awesome because the brain adapts; it’s the perfect model of how adaptation works in the brain.”
The RoboRoach has already sold more than 150 kits to high schools — a few have entered research labs at the university level, too — and some kids (see below) are already taking the RoboRoach into their own hands for science fairs and randomization experiments.
“The overarching goal of our company is to bring upon the ‘neuro-revolution,’ which is where people can contribute to science almost like they do in mathematics and astronomy,” Gage says. “In computer science, for example, there are tons of amateurs that are contributing to that field because the access to the tools is affordable and cheap. Wouldn’t it be cool, in neuroscience, if we could do the same thing?”