Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Introducing the RoboRoach: Greg Gage at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Talking as fast and fervently as a circus busker, TED Fellow Greg Gage introduces the world to RoboRoach — a kit that allows you create a cockroach cyborg and control its movements via an iPhone app and “the world’s first commercially available cyborg in the history of mankind.”

“I’m a neuroscientist,” says Gage, “and that means I had to go to grad school for five years just to ask questions about the brain.” This is because the equipment involved is so expensive and complex that it’s only available in university research labs, accessible to PhD candidates and researchers. But other branches of science don’t have this problem — “You don’t have to get a PhD in astronomy to get a telescope and study the sky.”

Yet one in five of us will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder — for which we have no cures. We need more people educated in neuroscience to investigate these diseases. That’s why Gage and his partners at Backyard Brains are developing affordable tools that allow educators to teach electrophysiology from university down to the fifth grade level.

Explaining the RoboRoach as it’s being set up for demonstration, Gage explains that the neurons inside the cockroach’s antennas allows it to navigate the world, sending information back to the brain. If the cockroach is touched by an object on the left it moves right, and vice versa. “What if we sent a little pulse of electricity?” asks Gage.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As he speaks, he and his partner, Tim Marzullo, release a large South American cockroach wearing an electronic backpack — which sends an electrical current directly into the cockroach’s antenna nerves — onto the table on stage. A line of green spikes appear, accompanied by a sound like rain on a tent or popcorn popping. “The common currency of the brain are the spikes in the neurons,” Gage explains. “These are the neurons that are inside of the antenna, but that’s also what your brain sounds like. Your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams, all encoded into these spikes. People, this is reality right here — the spikes are everything you know!” As Greg’s partner swipes his finger across his iPhone, the RoboRoach swerves left and right, sometimes erratically going in a full confused circle.

So why do this? “This is the exact same technology that’s used to treat Parkinson’s disease and make cochlear implants for deaf people. If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neurological revolution.”

After Gage’s talk, Chris Anderson asks about the ethics of using the cockroaches for these purposes. Gage explains that this is microstimulation, not a pain response — the evidence is that the roach adapts quickly to the stimulation. (In fact, some high school students have discovered that they can control the rate of adaptation in an unusual way — by playing music to the roaches over their iPods.) After the experiment, he says, the cockroaches are released to go back to do what cockroaches normally do. So don’t worry — no animals were irretrievably harmed in the making of this TED talk.

Greg Gage’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »