Should Backyard Brains bug out?

roach1A US company, Backyard Brains, has recently been criticised for marketing a device which allows users to create their own ‘cyborg’ cockroach, using a mobile phone app to control the critter’s movements. The ‘kickstarter’ funded project, headed by graduate students with a passion for science education, has caused serious controversy, including accusations that the device will “encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools”. But is it possible that these concerns are misguided?

As a scientist with a passion for public engagement, on many occasions I’ve struggled with two fundamental and opposing concepts which make this work a very delicate balancing act:

  1. Science is complicated and often a bit dry.
  2. If you want to engage non-scientists, it is often necessary to ‘sex things up’ with provocative language and concepts which pique their interest.

And here lies the problem.

Let’s take Backyard Brains’ ‘RoboRoach’ as an example. The students who began this project noticed a fundamental problem: “One in five people are likely to suffer from a neural affliction at some point in their lives and many such disorders are currently untreatable. Thus, we are in desperate need of more research in this area”. However, unlike chemistry, physics and some other aspects of biology; there are no hands-on ways to engage young people with neuroscience.

This means that when most budding nBrain copyeuro-researchers reach university (myself included), they are often woefully unprepared for the work they will be doing. I still remember struggling with the concepts of electro-chemical gradients and the technology used to record signals from the living brain. After 8 years I’d say I’m finally getting there. But, with our lab looking into early Alzheimer’s diagnostics and treatments, I can’t help but wish I had been better prepared to move quickly into this complicated and immensely important field of study.

The Backyard Brains tool kit certainly ticks all the boxes as a cheap, easy to use method to teach future scientists. And I don’t doubt that the procedures they use balance causing the least possible harm with giving young scientists a chance to learn things they would otherwise not encounter until late in their university education. So I have no qualms with the premise behind ‘RoboRoach’. But I do see a problem with how this teaching tool has been marketed. Terms like ‘RoboRoach’ and ‘cyborg’, not to mention this t-shirt, cheapen the premise behind this project and give critics ample fodder to argue that these scientists are heartless and happy to make light of (and profit from) a serious matter.

So this is where my earlier points come into play. I understand why Backyard Brains used this marketing technique. I’ve been to a number of public engagement lectures where one message is constantly driven home: if you want people to care about your scientific work, you have to make it sound “cool”. So, to be honest Backyard Brains are following this message to a tee. If you read through their web page they even admit this:

“The name “The RoboRoach” and the tagline “Control a Living Insect from Your Smartphone” was chosen to be provocative and to capture the public’s interest. A more accurate though much drier title would have been: “The RoboRoach: Study the effect of frequency and pulse duration on activating sensory circuits in the cockroach locomotion system, and the subsequent adaptation.” This is an accurate description, and these devices are currently used by scientists at research universities. However, such a description though would have alienated novices who have never had any exposure to neuroscience or neural interface experiments. We aim to bring neuroscience to people not necessarily in graduate school and thus chose an easily understandable, provocative name.”

However, I also understand why critics have called their stance ‘disingenuous’, especially when their website contains honest, well argued, ethical considerations alongside seemingly flippant statements which appear to trivialise the whole project; like this: “The RoboRoach is the world’s first commercially available cyborg! That’s right… A real-life Insect Cyborg! Part cockroach and part machine”statement from their kickstarter page.

Unfortunately, although this marketing may have bought them funding, it has also cost them the trust of many critics.

But if you can step outside the controversy and look at the basics of this project, I do believe that this work is both timely and necessary. Here, budding researchers learn how nerve cells communicate and, on a basic level, how to interface with a living brain. The techniques they learn are similar to those used in deep brain stimulation for treatment of Parkinson’s disease; a procedure which has given many sufferers a whole new lease of life! (see video below) And, to top it off, the cockroaches in question continue on to live a full life following the experiments (a fate preferable to that of most wild roaches).

So, although I certainly understand the criticisms aimed at this product. I also honestly believe that, if used as intended as an academic tool, this kit could be an important first step in training future neuro-researchers; perhaps even giving them the head start they need to cure some of the most devastating neurological afflictions.

Post by: Sarah Fox

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