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Control a cockroach from your smartphone? There's an app for that.
November 8, 2013 11:38 PM   Subscribe

After a TED Talk demonstration and a successful Kickstarter, Backyard Brains plans to release a kit instructing kids to strap a miniature backpack to cockroaches and insert electrodes into its brain, allowing the cockroach to be controlled by a smartphone app. Some scientists are less than pleased with the ethics of the project.
posted by meowzilla (128 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The next step will be the TED talk where they do the same thing to an immigrant.
posted by happyroach at 11:53 PM on November 8, 2013 [34 favorites]


In a rare break of form, I've gotta side with the critics here.

Use of the word "backpack" is (err...what's the opposite of 'pejorative'?) and this is overstepping things.

Stick with laser pointers and food pellets, please.
posted by ShutterBun at 11:54 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, cockroaches can be managed... they can also be management.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:55 PM on November 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Likewise Queen's University philosophy Professor Michael Allen warned that the device will "encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools".

Hopefully no one tells these philosophers what we scientists have been doing with nematodes the last couple decades.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:55 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Scientists ≠ random kid with smartphone and Krazy Glue.
posted by ShutterBun at 11:57 PM on November 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


Have you ever wanted to walk down the hall of your school or department with your own remote controlled cockroach? We are now excited to announce the world's first commercially available cyborg! With our RoboRoach you can briefly wirelessly control the left/right movement of a cockroach by microstimulation of the antenna nerves. The RoboRoach is a great way to learn about neurotechnology, learning, and electronics!

Disgusting. This isn't educational. It's sick. I am reminded of my dad's comment about bullies as being "the sort of people who enjoy pulling the wings from flies."

I don't kill insects, I won't use pesticides against them, I capture and release spiders that get into my house and tell my kids - again and again and again - that insects are living creatures and we don't have the right to kill them... with the exception of mosquitoes that land on you. If you're gonna try and suck my blood all bets are off.
posted by three blind mice at 12:23 AM on November 9, 2013 [49 favorites]


Hopefully no one tells these philosophers what we scientists have been doing with nematodes the last couple decades.

How do you feel about doing that, BP?
posted by Kerasia at 12:24 AM on November 9, 2013


posted by three blind mice

Let's all agree not to talk about what happens to mice, mmkay?
posted by ShutterBun at 12:27 AM on November 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hate to be a hater, so I won't be.

Godspeed, kids!
posted by notyou at 12:31 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Krazy Glue comment reminded me about flies and the freezer and Krazy Glue and thread...

Godspeed, Kids!
posted by notyou at 12:34 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's all agree not to talk about what happens to mice, mmkay?

We can talk about the ethics of using mice in experiments if you like, but that's a pretty different discussion than the one about using mouse experiments for entertainment.
posted by Fnarf at 12:38 AM on November 9, 2013 [34 favorites]


How do you feel about doing that, BP?

Complicated. Seems like it will happen regardless of how a few people feel about it. The more we learn about biology, it does seem like vitalism is slowly on the way out, though. Perhaps a more useful question is how society is changing, learning that living things are more or less like the machines we've been making in factories. We're controlling cockroaches with iPhones for fun. Maybe we'll one day learn enough about cognition and consciousness through research to model and understand whether a non-human life can understand and give consent. In the meantime, we'll probably keep taking silence as assent. The future will be weirder, more fascinating and likely ethically grayer.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:52 AM on November 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


We can talk about the ethics of using mice in experiments if you like

It was more of an "eponysterical" directed at "ThreeBlindMice"

I'm firmly in the "don't glue stuff to bugs for fun, kids" camp here.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:21 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm fully with "three blind mice". This is disgusting and morally reprehensible. If you think this POV is nitpicky and that cockroaches are insignificant, keep this in mind. The fact that our science has evolved faster than our bio-ethics is a major problem for all of us and, until we deal with it, this schism will only become more threatening and all encompassing.
posted by chance at 1:35 AM on November 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


If you fit this system to all the roaches in your apartment you can march them all off somewhere else, far away.
posted by colie at 1:39 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The next step will be the TED talk where they do the same thing to an immigrant.
posted by happyroach


Did you post this from your iPhone?
posted by en forme de poire at 1:56 AM on November 9, 2013 [28 favorites]


I don't know what the specific scientific ethics protocols are with regard to cockroaches in Australia. But I do know that any experiments with living animals require ethics panel clearance. This involves making an extensive written animal ethics application to the panel, showing that there is a compelling need such as aiming to understand cancer, showing that the fewest possible number of animals are involved, and showing any pain or discomfort will be minimal or absent. This takes a lot of time and effort, but I've never heard any scientist complain that they shouldn't have to do it; they recognize the need for them. You can argue where the bar for these should be set, or even if it should be allowed at all, but you can be sure that any scientific experiment involving animals is very carefully scrutinised to ensure it meets with the expectations of society.

What is being described in this post is just screwing around with living creatures for the fun of it. It's despicable. Why TED or Kickstarter would support and encourage something so obviously ethically reprehensible is beyond me.
posted by drnick at 2:06 AM on November 9, 2013 [26 favorites]


The RoboRoach is a great way to learn about neurotechnology, learning, and electronics!

Paul Verhoeven, you've done it again! It's satire, people!

Umm...isn't it?
posted by ShutterBun at 2:34 AM on November 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


I don't kill insects

You mean that you don't intentionally kill Insects. By driving, walking, moving, or even just sleeping we probably end up killing insects. Heck, if you wear or buy something that has red dye, you're probably contributing to the organized mass death of billions of insects.
posted by FJT at 2:35 AM on November 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


Let's point out the obvious distinction between "kill" and "inadvertently cause the death of." (as well as "use products based on the bodies of..." etc.)

I've never killed a mammal (except for a skunk I'm pretty sure must be dead via my car) but that's not to say I've never used an animal-based product.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:42 AM on November 9, 2013


If you are going to go with dodgy insect-based toys then there is really nothing to beat the old low tech June Bug on a Sting - I saw plenty of these being used by kids in Laos.
posted by rongorongo at 3:09 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hope nobody tells the scientists what the ruling classes have been doing to the working poor since umpty-jillion BC.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:25 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


drnick: "I don't know what the specific scientific ethics protocols are with regard to cockroaches in Australia. But I do know that any experiments with living animals require ethics panel clearance."

In Australia at least, ethics panel approval is generally not needed at all for invertebrates. I remember being amused during my postgrad that others had reams of paperwork because they might potentially catch a cute mammal in one of their traps, while I could culture then euthanise thousands of beetles with impunity and a total absence of paperwork.

That said, I remember being rather squicked out once in undergrad that the crustacean I was half-way through dissecting wasn't quite dead, despite having been 'euthanised' by immersion in freezing water for 24hrs.
posted by Pinback at 3:29 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


@pinback - you seem to have experienced some sort of moral qualm about causing suffering or destruction to a still living being. That is significant as a data point in the intersection between your morals and the bio-sciences. Please don't downplay it as "squicked out", our moral instincts are more important than just "grossness" or "squick".
posted by DGStieber at 3:38 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


If you fit this system to all the roaches in your apartment you can march them all off somewhere else, far away.

Bit late for me. Mine are presently convening a constitutional convention in the bathroom and planning the annexation of the hall closet.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:00 AM on November 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: "The more we learn about biology, it does seem like vitalism is slowly on the way out, though."

This is particularly relevant to insects and other creatures at the intelligence level of roaches - at only around 1 million neurons, a cockroach's brain could conceivably be modelled entirely by your desktop computer. Would it be unethical to cause that model "pain"? Now that there are ANNs of more than 1e9 neurons, maybe this question is going to become important sooner than we think.
posted by vanar sena at 4:04 AM on November 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


You mean that you don't intentionally kill Insects. By driving, walking, moving, or even just sleeping we probably end up killing insects.

Good point FJT. I don't doubt that I am both directly and indirectly responsible for the demise of a lot of insects, I don't have a problem with legitimate animal research, and I eat meat, but all of that is a different ball of wax than intentionally killing them cause I think they're icky or using their lives for my amusement. That ain't right.

"Education" is a grey zone, but I can't imagine that this Dr. Mengele bug kit will result in any education other than to teach kids how to be psychopaths.
posted by three blind mice at 4:30 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we work real hard, and get enough kids involved, then I believe that before this decade is out we could make a kitten dance the Macarena via remote control.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:47 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Scientists ≠ random kid with smartphone and Krazy Glue.

What if it's a project like this?
posted by Behemoth at 5:24 AM on November 9, 2013


I don't know what the specific scientific ethics protocols are with regard to cockroaches in Australia. But I do know that any experiments with living animals require ethics panel clearance.

Yeah, I don't know of this being true anywhere. The international standard - which Australia follows - is that ethics applications etc are required for vertebrates and, sometimes, higher order invertebrates. Insects are neither and you can do what you want with them. Human experimentation, by the way, requires a whole other level of ethics approval too, it's much harder to get.

I have no problem killing insects in my house or even the odd rat my cats bring home. But I do have a problem with this being sold as a fun thing for kids to do. I agree with the scientist quoted in the article "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools" (although not so much the 'teaching kids to be psychopaths' thing). This kit totally devalues the life of a complex experimental organism and the attitude behind that is horrible. I can see this system maybe being used as part of a good science curriculum along side proper instruction about how to design a useful experiment and how to both respect and get the most out of the tools we have available to us (because those two things should always go together). But not just as a toy.
posted by shelleycat at 5:25 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is pretty creepy and weird but I'm amazed that it works. Makes me think of the Cylon Raider that Starbuck figures out how to work by pushing and pulling on its innards.
posted by NoraReed at 5:46 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh man I just realized that I'm a bug racist, or something. 'Cause I thought, 'If I had one of those on that four-inch long, inch wide water bug I found in that cupboard, it wouldn't have jumped almost on my hand triggering great bouts of screaming, backpack for that guy, done' and then I thought 'Oh but what about a ladybug or butterfly, that would just be wrong'

Bug racist.
posted by angrycat at 5:51 AM on November 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


Disgusting, yes, but without denying there may be one, I'm not clear what the ethical case is.
posted by Segundus at 5:52 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Suppose there was no cutting involved, just sticking on the pack, would that be wrong? Why would it be worse than riding a horse?

And if the horse were a gelding, cut to make it more controllable?

Is some of our revulsion coming from the ugliness of the modified roach, as against the beauty of the gelding?
posted by Segundus at 6:00 AM on November 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


drnick: "I don't know what the specific scientific ethics protocols are with regard to cockroaches in Australia. But I do know that any experiments with living animals require ethics panel clearance."

Here is the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes, explicitly excludes invertebrates other than cephalopods from consideration as part of its definition of "Animal" on page 3. Australia is not unusual in this, for example, the NIH Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals on page 2 limits itself to vertebrates, while suggesting some parts may also apply to invertebrates such as cephalopods.

Insects just aren't on the radar of mainstream scientific ethics panels.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 6:05 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


At first I was 100 percent disgusted by this but the page of ethical FAQs on the makers' site is interesting:

http://wiki.backyardbrains.com/Ethical_Issues_Regarding_Using_Invertebrates_in_Education


If you want to treat the roach in the respectful manner one would with a cat or dog, they point out that the creature is anaesthetised, the effects of the surgery will wear off in a few minutes, you can then clip the wires and any missing bit of the roach will grow back in due course. You can then retire it to your breeding programme and feed it all its favourite foods and it will be leading a better life than the average roach. So I'm a bit unsure of this one.
posted by colie at 6:23 AM on November 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


If you want to treat the roach in the respectful manner in which one would [override the neurological autonomy of] a cat or dog...

That's part of my problem right with this right there. Kids inured to the idea of violating the consciousness of a lower-order organism will grow up to try it on higher-order ones.
posted by Iridic at 6:36 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


I doubt a roach has anything like consciousness.
posted by jpe at 6:38 AM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


There might not be an automatic ethical ban on violating the consciousness of a creature, the makers seem to be implying, if you treat the creature with respect and are doing it for defensible reasons - which is why this is not the same as pulling the legs off a spider.
posted by colie at 6:46 AM on November 9, 2013


That's part of my problem right with this right there. Kids inured to the idea of violating the consciousness of a lower-order organism will grow up to try it on higher-order ones.

Replace those terms with "virtual humans" and "actual humans" and you have the classic anti-video game argument.

I have conflicted feelings about this kit, but I can't help notice that almost every argument against involves some version of the slippery slope fallacy.
posted by rocket88 at 6:49 AM on November 9, 2013 [20 favorites]


Not cool. Children need to be taught to appreciate and respect all of "God's" creatures, and not that they are simply playthings for their amusement. This type of instrumental thinking is behind a lot of sociopathic behavior IMHO. Want to treat others as inconsequential pawns in the game of Your Life? To torture something and sleep well at night? Learn to strip it of its "soul", agency, consciousness, etc.

We can do better than this.
posted by nowhere man at 6:55 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Kids inured to the idea of violating the consciousness of a lower-order organism will grow up to try it on higher-order ones.

That's not true, though. Generations of kids on farms who were taught to wring the necks of chickens (and more) did not go on to kill people.
posted by Segundus at 6:56 AM on November 9, 2013 [16 favorites]


there's a difference between farm work which has a purpose and doing it for kicks with an iphone app.
posted by nadawi at 6:59 AM on November 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


I don't think roaches will suffer from this kind of treatment, nor that there's any shortage of roaches. Where I have a problem is that this kind of thing isn't teaching kids anything about biology or the natural history of roaches, but simply objectifies them for commercial reasons. Maybe kids will learn a lesson about bioethics?

This does remind me of an elderly co-worker from Kentucky many years ago. He had a lot of great stories, one of which was, "Boy you go out and get your self one of those big horseflies. Now get a piece of broomstraw about this long, and stick that up his butt. Let him go and that scoger'll fly around in circles right up into the sky!"

(No idea what a scoger is.)
posted by sneebler at 7:01 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I expect they'll get a visit from militant animal rights activists, with all the usual ensuing fireball and wreckage.
posted by Dr Ew at 7:02 AM on November 9, 2013


This is all very interesting to me because on the farm my family owns, we kill insects with organic pesticides that cause an unpleasant (from a human view) death. Sure, it has a purpose, but you could say that about a lot of things. Where do we draw the line? There are at least a few philosophers and ethicists who say a lot of what farmers do is totally unnecessary and we should do something about it either by developing more humane methods or by reducing the insect population (preventing pests from being born and thus suffering a pesticide death). Here are some essays on human insecticides and population dynamics of insect suffering.

As far as the slippery slope, yes it can be a fallacy, but there is research showing that cruel actions towards animals can affect the human brain. It's not so much about the reality of the insect brain, but how they are perceived in our own brain, which is pretty quirky AKA the trolley problem. It's almost like we have an insect trolley problem here: people are upset about the idea of causing harm by their own hands to an individual insect, but not about "flipping the switch" figuratively by buying certain types of produce.
posted by melissam at 7:12 AM on November 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Suppose there was no cutting involved, just sticking on the pack, would that be wrong? Why would it be worse than riding a horse?

Yeah, I thought about that, too. I'm not sure why this creeps me out so much. I mean I don't mind the exterminator coming by my apt twice a year. And this seems like the high tech version of kids frying ants with a magnifying glass, and I usually think of that as something kids do once in their lives (though I've actually never done it or seen it done for that matter). I think maybe it's the brain/nerve control of an ignorant creature that bothers me? Anyway, this is yet another point of confirmation that I'm a big ol' hypocrite when it comes to animal/insect rights.
posted by bluefly at 7:15 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Where I have a problem is that this kind of thing isn't teaching kids anything about biology or the natural history of roaches, but simply objectifies them for commercial reasons.

This pretty much sums up my problem. I'm all for good science education. What I don't like is being stuck training young scientists who have no empathy or respect for the organisms they're using because that leads to bad scientific outcomes (plus it's kind of gross), and that's where using this as a toy ends up.

The whole 'training psycopaths' thing is over the top and beside the point. Plenty of kids watch their pet cat eat a bird or work on a farm or use fly spray to kill a room full of flies without turning into monsters, and the ones that do become monsters have something more going on than just playing with cockroaches.
posted by shelleycat at 7:16 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh here is the relevant experiment I couldn't find before I wrote my comment: Evidence That Initial Obedient Killing Fuels Subsequent Volitional Killing Beyond Effects of Practice
PDF:
Research using a bug-killing paradigm has suggested that increased initial killing may promote increased subsequent killing (Martens et al., 2007). Here we tested whether this effect is due to killing per se or merely due to practice, and whether this initial repeated bug-killing exerts its effect by desensitizing people or by motivating them to kill more. Participants were asked to place bugs into an “extermination grinder” at their own pace after putting either one or five bugs into the grinder initially. Participants either believed they were actually killing the bugs or knew they were not. Results showed that the initial-killing effect occurred only when people thought they were killing, suggesting this is not merely a practice effect. Also, suggesting a motivational component, among participants who killed five bugs initially, those who believed they were killing went on to kill more than those who knew the killing was simulated.
So I might not buy this for my hypothetical kids not because I'm worried about bugs, but because I'm worried about my kids.
posted by melissam at 7:16 AM on November 9, 2013 [28 favorites]


melissam, thanks for this - I thought the Trolley Problem was a bit of a derail...
posted by sneebler at 7:18 AM on November 9, 2013


For some reason, I find myself thinking about how long we've leashed dogs, and now you can get leash backpacks for toddlers...
posted by davejay at 7:35 AM on November 9, 2013


My parents had one of those leash things for me when I was a toddler, more than 35 years ago.
posted by shelleycat at 8:15 AM on November 9, 2013


The more we learn about biology, it does seem like vitalism is slowly on the way out, though.

According to the deep ecologist philosophers (Derrick Jensen for example), the causality of this phenomenon is reversed -- we must philosophically devitalize the world first in order to study it. Then, from that already-devitalized mental framework, the fruits of our scientific observation reinforce the view that the outside world is made of dead matter.

If you approach the world from the intersubjective, panpsychist or animist philosophical viewpoints, you don't arrive at the same conclusions.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:19 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


there's a difference between farm work which has a purpose and doing it for kicks with an iphone app.

Controlling roaches with an iphone for kicks is probably the only purpose I'd ever have for a cockroach, ever.

I concede that I may be history's greatest monster for reserving absolutely no mercy for cockroaches and have no concern over their total humiliation at the hands of humans, were it possible for them to be humiliated.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:33 AM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's a little odd that so many people are totally fine with killing roaches, but squicked out by controlling them. Especially since, as rongo notes above, the reluctance to interact with bugs is pretty culturally specific.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:58 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I doubt a roach has anything like consciousness.

Less than a hundred years ago, many felt the same way about women, black people and other non Europeans (and some still do). For me, the harm to worry about isn't only or even primarily the harm to the bugs, it's the harm to the kids--socializing them to view this as harmless fun only reinforces ugly ideas about objectifying living things and trivializes mind hijacking. There are basic human values at stake here that we need to choose to defend, not because they are True or scientific, but because human society depends on them, because they are fundamental to what defines humanity and necessary for the creation of ethical meaning.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:01 AM on November 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


Be the first kid on your block to drive those little cucarachas around your block: Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robots #1, #2, #3.
posted by cenoxo at 9:07 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


there's a difference between farm work which has a purpose and doing it for kicks with an iphone app.
What percentage of non-vegans do you think chose their diet for a non-hedonistic purpose (health concerns, etc), and what percentage do you think chose it for hedonic value (taste, ease, etc)?
posted by roystgnr at 9:26 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Queen's University philosophy Professor Michael Allen warned that the device will "encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools".

The key question, in my view, ought to be about the kinds of attributes that ought to be considered, and the degree to which those attributes are present, in order to make it improper to think of a thing as too "mere" to make ethical concerns applicable.

Simply being alive, it seems to me, ought not to be enough; I can see no reason why I should need to take an ethical position on the billions of bacteria I consign to their doom every time I take a dump. Many of those bacteria are quite capable of independent movement, so that can't be enough either. Also, the day a philosophy professor can hand me an iPhone he made all by himself is the day I'll take his description of a machine as somehow inherently "mere" seriously.

According to the deep ecologist philosophers (Derrick Jensen for example), the causality of this phenomenon is reversed -- we must philosophically devitalize the world first in order to study it. Then, from that already-devitalized mental framework, the fruits of our scientific observation reinforce the view that the outside world is made of dead matter.

The clear subtext here is that matter qua matter is necessarily essentially dead, which makes thinking about "the outside world" as being made of matter a view necessarily lacking in respectful, ethical or sacred aspects. I think that's cheap rhetorical sleight of hand, not "deep" ecologist philosophy.

I do see cockroaches as "mere", and have no problem thinking of them, and other organisms of similar complexity and abundance, as ethically far closer to machinery (fucking amazingly intricate machinery, for what it's worth, but machinery all the same) than to beings having anything even vaguely resembling something I might recognise as subjective experience. I have no more ethical concern with treating cockroaches as playthings than I would about e.g. Venus fly traps; I find it about as hard to imagine what it would be like to be a cockroach as to imagine what it would be like to be a Nintendo DS.

I do not believe that I see things that way because I have a "devitalized" mental framework. I see them that way because my mental framework allows for degrees and shades and subtlety and nuance when describing and appreciating and valuing the fantastical variety of forms that matter can assume, both living and nearly living and not living at all, and because I refuse to take almost all hard-edged categories seriously.

What I don't like is being stuck training young scientists who have no empathy or respect for the organisms they're using because that leads to bad scientific outcomes (plus it's kind of gross), and that's where using this as a toy ends up.

Not necessarily. I would have strong ethical objections to doing anything similar with fish or octopuses or kittens, all of which have brains many orders of magnitude more complex than cockroaches and all of which behave in ways that lead me to believe that their lives are to some extent reasonably comparable to my own, which makes them appropriate subjects to apply ethical considerations to.

So obviously if I'm considering candidate creatures to turn into remote control toys I'd need to draw a line of ethical concern somewhere. My point is that it seems to me that any reasonable line, regardless of how broad and fuzzy and ill-defined, would always end up so far away from cockroaches as to put them clearly on the no-ethical-concern side. Individual cockroaches just don't matter much.

Less than a hundred years ago, many felt the same way about women, black people and other non Europeans (and some still do).

Less than a hundred years ago we knew a hell of a lot less about minds and brains and gender and race than we do today.

For me, the harm to worry about isn't only or even primarily the harm to the bugs, it's the harm to the kids--socializing them to view this as harmless fun only reinforces ugly ideas about objectifying living things and trivializes mind hijacking.

That would worry me as well, if I thought for a second that a cockroach had anything that could reasonably be described as a mind, or if I thought that my kids were somehow less capable of empathy or insight than anybody else.
posted by flabdablet at 9:30 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


ugly ideas about objectifying living things and trivializes mind hijacking

Kids are eager to join a startup where they analyze data to segregate humans into demographic groups so they can be shown ads that feed into sales funnels that are A/B optimized, or a data-driven political campaign. i.e. the future of civilization is probably analogous to roaches with backpacks.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:31 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've developed and continue to work out the details of my own personal ethics about things like this, and I find the use of cockroaches for entertainment in this way objectionable.

My reasoning is fairly long, but the TL;DR of it is this:

There is sentience and there is sapience. Sentience exists in most or all animal forms, and simply means "has senses of the world around them and reacts in complicated ways to sensory input" and sapience can be classified as "having a sense of self and agency, including future planning and abstract cognition" -- amoebas have virtually no sentience and clearly no sapience. Cockroaches have sentience, but minimal (if any) sapience. Humans have the most complete expression of sapience that we are aware of, but we are followed close behind by very bright mammals and some birds. Humans exhibit somewhat less sentience (we cannot detect many stimuli that other animals can) than some animals. My ethical code prioritizes sapience over sentience, and sentience over non-sentience. I care more about my dog than the anthill outside. I care more about my children than my dog. That's the TL;DR version, but I think that covers most important points.

With regard to cockroaches, using them in this way for entertainment purposes I feel is a violation of their sentient nature. This isn't a matter of conducting research for new advances in medicine or physiology, this is people violating the (admittedly very minimal) will of another creature for fun. I, therefore, object to it.
posted by chimaera at 9:37 AM on November 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


Sentience exists in most or all animal forms, and simply means "has senses of the world around them and reacts in complicated ways to sensory input"

Serious question then: given that definition, what distinguishes the sentience of a cockroach from that of an iPhone?
posted by flabdablet at 9:40 AM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Roboroach weighs 4.5g and is compatible with most mobile phones.

I don't want to know what kind of roaches this thing is compatible with.
posted by jessssse at 9:42 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is outrageous.

I was just talking about this with my wife while we ate hamburgers. The way these cockroaches are being treated is just sickening. I'll probably have chicken for dinner, with friends: hopefully they'll agree that this is disgusting.

Tomorrow, I may have bacon before church, when I plan to ask my pastor if he too thinks this is objectionable.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:44 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Flabdablet: That is an interesting question, and one which still lies in the gaps of my ongoing considerations on the subject -- but at the moment I only consider living things in this set of ethics. Some day a mechanical object may take on all or nearly all of life's characteristics (including reproduction, etc), and there is certainly space to think about augmented creatures / Ship of Theseus sort of thing, but that's where I currently stand.
posted by chimaera at 9:45 AM on November 9, 2013


What percentage of non-vegans do you think chose their diet for a non-hedonistic purpose (health concerns, etc), and what percentage do you think chose it for hedonic value (taste, ease, etc)?

Well, the health effects of my one three-month experiment in vegetarianism absolutely hardened my predatory instincts, so I've tended to assume vegans do what they do for the hedonic value of feeling good about themselves for not hurting animals. OTOH I don't think most non-vegans chose not to be vegans. Humans have been carnivorous for hundreds of thousands of years, and I suspect most these days still are probably as much through force of habit as anything else.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2013


anotherpanacea: "Tomorrow, I may have bacon before church, when I plan to ask my pastor if he too thinks this is objectionable."

If you're Catholic, you needn't wait until tomorrow to find out.
posted by jquinby at 9:50 AM on November 9, 2013


Slippery slope here folks. First we're torturing cockroaches, but what's next? Horseflies? Mosquitoes? Hornets? Oh, wait...fuck those guys. Lots of insects are assholes.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:51 AM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


at the moment I only consider living things in this set of ethics.

Another serious question for you to ponder then: why privilege a life form over any comparably complex system? What is it about the processes by which complex systems are reproduced that makes DNA-based self-replication worthy of ethical consideration and factory-based manufactured replication not?

For me, it's all about the sapience and the ability to suffer that comes with that. We don't currently have sapient manufactured systems, and I don't expect to see one in my lifetime, but if I ever did I would absolutely want to help it avoid needless suffering.
posted by flabdablet at 9:57 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


insects are assholes

They probably should make more of this fact in the marketing of Roboroach.
posted by colie at 10:04 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing that amazed me about working in a fly lab was the disposal techniques - 200ml beaker full of dead flies and water? Just flush it down the toilet in the ladies'.
posted by maryr at 10:06 AM on November 9, 2013


Beer is cruelty to yeast.
posted by flabdablet at 10:10 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness though, this is only a first step, important though it may be. We need to be prepared. What happened in Buenos Aires cannot be allowed to happen again!!1!

Would you like to know more?
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 10:15 AM on November 9, 2013


...what distinguishes the sentience of a cockroach from that of an iPhone?

The end user. Advantage: cockroach.
posted by cenoxo at 10:18 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flabdablet:
Another serious question for you to ponder then: why privilege a life form over any comparably complex system?


In a vacuum, I don't think there's a practical reason to privilege a life form -- but in the context of animals with higher sapience relying on biospheres and ecologies that are made up of lower life forms (and not other complex systems -- in anything other than sci fi scenarios currently) higher sapience animals' reliance on a thriving ecosystem privileges things that help them over things that don't.
posted by chimaera at 10:23 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


And this is where my personal set of ethics has the emergent complexities as any other -- competing priorities. I privilege a house (which is totally inert by most reasonable measures) over the ants that may infest it due to its direct value to the humans and pets which rely on it.
posted by chimaera at 10:25 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


higher sapience animals' reliance on a thriving ecosystem privileges things that help them over things that don't.

Fair point, but if there's one kind of creature on this planet that's absolutely not endangered or threatened it's cockroaches. They're adaptable little bastards.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


For me, it's all about the sapience and the ability to suffer that comes with that.

Absolutely, that is the very core of my ethics about this situation: the needless suffering of a creature with a sense of self and agency is a violation of that agency. In this way I consider meat eating to be acceptable -- but also that extremely strict and seriously enforced regulation should be in place that minimizes the suffering of animals raised for food.

A life in which the animal has free access to the outdoors (including sunlight and shade if desired), clean water and healthy food and lives a life without the unnecessary infliction of pain or restraint (i.e. a reasonable sized area for movement), followed by a swift and as painless as possible death is the way that all animals raised for food should be treated, and I am willing to pay whatever additional price that may result in.
posted by chimaera at 10:35 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fair point, but if there's one kind of creature on this planet that's absolutely not endangered or threatened it's cockroaches. They're adaptable little bastards.

Right -- from most practical terms, I don't care at all if they're killed wholesale in any situation where they present a problem to people (food spoilage/contamination, disease-carrying, just their presence in a house is a nuisance enough to kill them in my opinion), but I do draw the line of tampering with its (albeit limited) consciousness purely for entertainment purposes. We can find our entertainment elsewhere.
posted by chimaera at 10:38 AM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am personally surprised by my total lack of objections to this, ethical or otherwise. I keep casting about trying to find some, and I just don't have any. My house in Texas was habitat to enormous flying roaches (not uncommon), we used to find them in the cereal boxes or in our shoes, and I would gleefully murder those fuckers with spray cans full of neurotoxins. I just . . . don't have any problems with this. Weird.
posted by KathrynT at 10:47 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Eh, our ethics has always evolved along with our concept of society. Even using meat for food is viewed differently by different cultures and the same goes with using animals for entertainment. To act as if there is any hard line that should never be crossed is sort of hypocritical when being fully aware of the fact that are groups who believe that you are egregious violation yourself.
posted by asra at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want to treat the roach in the respectful manner in which one would [override the neurological autonomy of] a cat or dog...
That's part of my problem right with this right there. Kids inured to the idea of violating the consciousness of a lower-order organism will grow up to try it on higher-order ones.


God I hope so. We need good neuroscientists.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:09 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Scientists ≠ random kid with smartphone and Krazy Glue.
Saddest comment ever.
posted by zoo at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well said, zoo.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:37 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Another serious question for you to ponder then: why privilege a life form over any comparably complex system? What is it about the processes by which complex systems are reproduced that makes DNA-based self-replication worthy of ethical consideration and factory-based manufactured replication not?

Tell ya what - I'll answer when Apple or Samsung makes a cockroach.

I wouldn't have as much of an issue if this was a demonstration performed by a trained, more mature person for a bunch of kids, where the cockroaches are handled competently, and either released or humanely killed afterwards.

Oh, and that there was more of a point (teaching science) than "hey let's kill an hour by fucking up a cockroach".

I'm one of the kids who went a summer or two burning/maiming insects. Belatedly, I did learn something.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:47 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flabdablet: because we're alive and self-organizing biological systems are much more complex than their mechanical functions. Even the simplest self-organizing, self-directed organisms display many behaviors and other features not found in idealized model representations of them. Even a near perfect model of a neural net isn't necessarily the same thing as an actual neural net, it just successfully satisfied some subset of the conditions we're testing for to determine if we've modeled the real systems right. Even the most detailed map that can perfectly predict the shortest route to Paris still isn't really showing us the way to Paris, much less does the map's representation of Paris actually become Paris. Identity is a very difficult philosophical problem, but its easy to see why your example mistakes the map for the territory. IPhones don't know things; they are powered by code designed to mimic the behavior of knowing things. Scientists don't even care what knowing means, much less how to test for it, because "knowing" describes something that isn't objective. It's not fashionable to give the philosophers much credit these days, but I think metaphysics is underappreciated.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:06 PM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


And Gregor Samsa thought he had it bad.

Given how fumble-fingered many people are, this seems cruel not just on principle but because some users will mess up installing the kit and mangle the roach. If they can't pull the kit off and reuse it, this requires them to buy a new kit, making more money for the company.

Not to mention whoever forgets to wash their hands afterwards and gets sick from the germs that roaches carry.
posted by bad grammar at 12:15 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


How convenient for them that they chose cockroaches.

One of my personal biases is that I'm learning to track down the very sick people who hide in the dark corners of the internet distributing sexually-motivated gore videos of animal torture, sometimes of kittens or puppies or bunnies. I've found that the most disturbing, most potentially illegal videos are also the least common on a superficial search. How do these people find each other and satisfy their urges for animal torture otherwise? They collectively produce thousands and thousands of videos where someone, almost always a woman, and often a woman who is a victim of human trafficking, steps on/otherwise tortures acceptable animals like livestock: chickens and sometimes goats or cattle. These animals are systematically mutilated far, far beyond anything required to dispatch them "humanely". These videos are abundant and often perfectly legal because it's more OK to torture a chicken to death than it is to mutilate a kitten.

At the very introductory level, you find even more videos of women stepping on/destroying lesser animals like insects and crustaceans. Somehow, some of the torture fetishists can even get their rocks off to videos of maiming much less important creatures.

I don't understand that mentality yet, if I ever will, so I'm not sure which conclusions to draw, if any. Make of it what you will.
posted by quiet earth at 12:33 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The experimental psychologist in me wants to support the hell out of this, because it's easy to find dissection kits for biology or build-a-train kits for physics and engineering but it's really, really hard to find accessible points of entry for psychology and neuroscience.

But the problem is that this is for kids. Kids do not yet have a well-formed ethical compass, and kids already generally have a low threshold for unsavory behavior (i.e.: kids who torture bugs or small mammals who then grow up to be totally normal, ethical people). Having something like this available but without that extra teaching moment of "is this ethical?" concerns me. Science needs ethics. And if we want to raise little scientists, we need to raise little ethical scientists.

melissam, I'm delighted and amused that someone has conducted research on literally Ender's Game.
posted by nicodine at 12:35 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Somehow I can accept the ending of life in regards to insects and animals, even people in rare cases, but this controlling the very will of another living creature is horrifying to me. I accept the possible cognitive dissonance of it, but there it is.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 1:09 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I see zero problem with this. There seem to be a lot of people here who never lived with a cockroach infestation. "Released or humanely killed" in particular made me burst out laughing.
posted by smidgen at 1:20 PM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Late back, but …

DGStieber: "pinback - you seem to have experienced some sort of moral qualm about causing suffering or destruction to a still living being. That is significant as a data point in the intersection between your morals and the bio-sciences. Please don't downplay it as "squicked out", our moral instincts are more important than just "grossness" or "squick"."

Well, yes - that's why I was 'squicked out'; it was a visceral reaction to the moral quandary I found myself in.

My first thought was not "ewww - gross!", but my next thought was "uh-oh - I'm 3/4 of the way through dissecting this still-living creature; how can I minimise its suffering and make this … well, not 'right', it's a bit late for that, but 'less wrong'?"

maryr: "The thing that amazed me about working in a fly lab was the disposal techniques - 200ml beaker full of dead flies and water? Just flush it down the toilet in the ladies'."

Because tipping them into the men's urinal would just be gross…
posted by Pinback at 1:32 PM on November 9, 2013


i think a lot of people here oppose this because of the humans, not because of the cockroaches. i grew up in a trailer in arkansas and then cheap apartments in texas - my aversion to this idea is in no way related to my opinion of cockroaches, let me assure you.
posted by nadawi at 1:35 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I get it, thanks. The question is why are they worried about the humans given the status of the cockroaches?

I think worrying that those who slap mind control devices on the backs of barely conscious pests will turn into amoral frankensteins or animal torture enthusiasts, as they upgrade to higher life forms, is ridiculous.
posted by smidgen at 2:02 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I once spent an afternoon assisting Ali the Handyman, exterminating the cockroach swarms that were using the septic system as conduits to range from house to house on the big hill at the center of the kibbutz. Whenever one family bombed their home with pesticide, the roaches would travel next door to infest the neighbors', which played havoc with the uneasy peace of the kibbutz council. Families blamed each other for "sending the roaches over to our place," until the decision was reached to just spray the tunnels and kill the lot of them.

My job was to pry up about 30 sewer caps and hold them while Ali pumped poison out of an antique sprayer into the pipe head. Most of them were empty, so the job was pretty easy. There were cockroaches under five of the caps, though.

In those five there were layers of living cockroaches two inches thick on the underside of the lid and the sides of the pipe head. I felt them crunch under my fingers as I grabbed the edge of the cap. Then they began to course up my arms, tiny feet tickling their way into my armpits, over my shoulders and across my chest. After the first swarm I just left my shirt off, since it's easier to shake fifty frantic insects from your bare skin than it is to shake them out of your shirt.

I shouted at Ali to pump faster, and he did, before shouting, "Done!" and turning the nozzle on me. I shook and squirmed and brushed cockroaches off of my skin like a shower of crawling brown dandruff. It probably wasn't a good idea for me to let him spray me down with pesticide, but I didn't care.

Sometimes people tell me how much cockroaches freak them out, and I recall being Ali's assistant for a day, and how even though I try to limit the suffering I cause, I flip out when I see a roach. My heart races and I smash it in a frenzy of death. If there isn't a shoe or a book handy, I will slap it with my hand.

I would like to say it isn't exciting or thrilling to kill cockroaches, but it is.

I don't enjoy killing. I have killed songbirds left wounded by outdoor cats, sent nearly-dead chickens on their way, whacked hundreds of rodents for snake food, and shot dead a dog gone mad from pain and abuse. All of those killings were difficult, and despite the necessity, the pall from those deaths hung over me for years. I was the go-to guy for mercy killings among my friends, since they knew my hands were already steeped in blood. What a rep.

All I'm saying is, if you're controlling a cockroach with your smart-phone, keep it away from me or I will freak the fuck out, crush it and ruin your fun. I won't reimburse you for your kit, either. Too bad, sorry.

I try to be a real human being: I want to elevate and evolve my consciousness to the point where I don't have this visceral reaction, but I lose myself in the trauma I felt helping Ali the Handyman. Fear and panic are the circuit board glued to my spine, and horror is the smartphone app telling me that all cockroaches must die.

One day I will be free.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:02 PM on November 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think the whole point is to "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools". Pretty soon we're gonna have brain chips and stuff, and our children need to get used to the idea that engineers can augment/alter behavior with the appropriate application of electronics. I also think that people need to realize that deciding upon proper treatment of organisms based upon the complexity their nervous systems is the most principled way to do it. Do whatever ya want with the inverts!
posted by zscore at 2:19 PM on November 9, 2013


The question of when an algorithm becomes more worthy of consideration than a cockroach is an interesting one. I would vote for the systemic complexity being the measure, but I'm not entirely sure how to measure that complexity such that you don't rate the whole internet, for example, as greater than a human being in that kind of moral calculus.
posted by smidgen at 2:25 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Save The Roachs.... from the Emerald Wasp.
posted by sammyo at 2:48 PM on November 9, 2013


This is marketed toward high school students, it looks like. So teenagers. (Oh, I found it. With adult supervision, 10+, otherwise 13+.)

And, man, when I think of the teenagers I know and have known, their need to learn empathy outweighs their need to do science experiments.

I guess if I were somehow convinced that this sort of project were significantly more illuminating than a similar computer model, that would make some difference, but to me, the approach seems kind of superfluous. This is for illustration, not real experimentation. They're given step by step instructions, and being told what their results will be. I see no real benefit to using living creatures for this over using (far less expensive) simulations to teach the same concepts. In fact, it seems a little gimmicky and even almost childish, like a kitchen table volcano.

Generally, adolescents (even more generally, humans) are really, really impressionable and not all that sensitive to nuance. They pick up cues about what is and is not socially acceptable from their peers and the adults around them--and sometimes intentionally flout those, of course. I just can't see that this sort of thing is worth the risks in a population that's already prone to sociopathic behaviors.

I don't think kids need to be dissecting animals in science class, either. It appeals to the wrong kids for all the wrong reasons. Think about the subset of kids who really enjoyed doing that in school. Very few of them were motivated by or came away with an interest in biology.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:25 PM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I get it, thanks. The question is why are they worried about the humans given the status of the cockroaches?

well since you didn't indicate that was your confusion at all, you might understand why i responded to the words you said instead of the words you apparently meant.
posted by nadawi at 4:24 PM on November 9, 2013


I couldn't be less a fan of cockroaches, but this is both fucked up AND bullshit.
posted by Space Kitty at 4:43 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


For some reason, I find myself thinking about how long we've leashed dogs, and now you can get leash backpacks for toddlers...

Probably a good thing for kids who bolt into the street, no?
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:46 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Generally, adolescents (even more generally, humans) are really, really impressionable and not all that sensitive to nuance.

I think you can rest easy. An extremely small percentage of adolescents progress from swatting mosquitos and killing spiders in the bathtub to destroying small mammals. They exercise a lot more judgement than people give them credit for.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:11 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm unimpressed: it's entertainment (rather distasteful entertainment to my mind) masquerading as science. And one of the worries I have is that kids who see this and mistake it for real science may be very put-off by it, and by extension science as a whole, if they tend to be more empathetic end of the spectrum.... and because girls are raised in a way that places a high value on compassion, it's more likely to be girls than boys who will turned off by seeing/hearing about it. *sigh*
posted by Westringia F. at 5:30 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


you might understand why i responded to the words you said

Fair enough, sorry about that.
posted by smidgen at 6:06 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I enjoy the belief that there is this army of sociopathic children out there who would gleefully torture cats and dogs and people, but only if they're introduced to it by a remote control cockroach. Because clearly, without this particular device, they would just have no idea.
posted by kafziel at 6:21 PM on November 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Prior art — Fifth Element: Remote controlled cockroach scene.
posted by cenoxo at 6:52 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Identity is a very difficult philosophical problem, but its easy to see why your example mistakes the map for the territory. IPhones don't know things; they are powered by code designed to mimic the behavior of knowing things. Scientists don't even care what knowing means, much less how to test for it, because "knowing" describes something that isn't objective.

I absolutely agree that iPhones don't know things.

My point is that I don't believe cockroaches do either.
posted by flabdablet at 7:51 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm fully good with this. Up until nine days ago, I was a vegetarian. And I was a cockroach-killing mofo. I don't see much difference between this and dissections you perform in high school. My positive takeaway is that if this interests some youths in the neurosciences, more power to this project.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:39 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know about "sociiopathic" but I know a lot of kids do have an impulse to torture insects and other small animals. I remember other kids at school pulling wings off flies, burning up bugs with a magnifying glass, giving panadol to seagulls...

I was a sensitive kid and found that upsetting, but at least I knew it was against grown up rules and they would put a stop to it if they saw it. I would have found it pretty fucked up if the adults instead encouraged the kids, and gave them tools so they could torture in more interesting ways.
posted by Greener Backyards at 9:43 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I tried to teach my two reasonable respect for living things, including insects.
Sure we ate meat, and yes, I've killed bugs, roaches, scorpions, poisonous spiders, fleas, lice, bedbugs, flies, the occasional wasp, but this is very different from gluing stuff onto an insect and messing with it for fun.
That is where I draw the line. I actually saw one of those things on YouTube.
Too Matrix for my tastes.

Mainstream science is actually moving away from experimenting on animals and insects anyway. Not something I plan getting for my grand-kids.
We did watch an ant-hill once. I even got some crumbs, we put them down and watched the ants carry them off
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:36 PM on November 9, 2013


When I was kid I wiped out my share of bugs, but grew more curious and started capturing and releasing them. A clear, wide-mouthed plastic jar with lid works well for this*, and gives you, your kids, and even the cat (I caught a mouse in the jar once) an opportunity to learn more about fellow Earthlings instead of reflexively killing them.

Make no mistake: if an insect is drilling for my corpuscles; regarding me as an incubator; stinging me for real or imagined offenses; nesting in my food; or invading my home in large numbers (think Naked Jungle); I will defend me and mine. Otherwise, why not stop before you stomp or swat? If God has an inordinate fondness for beetles, we can afford to show a little mercy to them and their kin.

*If your personal squick factor won't let you get close enough, try a BugZooka instead. With all of the insect identification resources on the Web, it's easy to find out what you've caught.
posted by cenoxo at 5:25 AM on November 10, 2013


Having read the instructions, I really don't see a 10-to-13-year-old successfully completing the operation. Given that this is a $100 kit with fragile electrodes, we may be talking about something that won't really happen.
posted by kewb at 6:17 AM on November 10, 2013


One of my personal biases is that I'm learning to track down the very sick people who hide in the dark corners of the internet distributing sexually-motivated gore videos of animal torture, sometimes of kittens or puppies or bunnies.

Cockroach flesh search!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:40 AM on November 10, 2013


The extermination services hawking their craft in both the top and bottom AdSense spots of this post are an odd contrast to the discussion..
posted by cj_ at 11:02 AM on November 10, 2013


One of my personal biases is that I'm learning to track down the very sick people who hide in the dark corners of the internet distributing sexually-motivated gore videos of animal torture,

It involves doing lots of research. Lots and lots. Watching the videos over and over and over. Makes me so angry. Soon, I will be ready. Soon. Once I watch just a few more.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:25 PM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Many of the negative reactions here seem to be against the "entertainment" or "torture" aspect of the process. I think this is wilful misinterpretation of how Backyard Brains presents themselves. They have a whole section devoted to ethics, and the their experiments are clearly aimed at educational purposes rather than entertainment. The equipment is expensive, and as others have pointed out, quite a bit of manual dexterity is required.

Many animals lose their lives for science and for development of clinical treatments. You can bemoan this if you must, but only if you forego any of the health benefits these animals have bought. If Backyard Brains attracts more people to neuroscience research, when they otherwise might take the much more lucrative option of banking, then so much the better for humanity.
posted by FrereKhan at 4:24 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the idea that it is more important that teenagers learn compassion than science is not only wrong, but one of the reasons we have fewer scientists than we should or need.

Looking at a list of Nobel prize winners by high school, I note that those with the highest number are those whose schools offered a more robust biology curriculum, including dissection of vertebrates such as cats. It seems likely that for some, rather than encouraging callousness, it encourages a sense of wonder and exploration that may serve them all of their lives.

The only reason I'm not getting ready to buy one of these for my kid is that I am wary of voluntarily introducing roaches to a roach-free house. Otherwise, game on, and I think if you've ever bought a can of Raid or a Roach Motel, you have no business bemoaning the fate of the poor cockroach.

Also thanks Ice Cream Socialist, I will never sleep again.
posted by corb at 4:57 AM on November 11, 2013


comparing this to dissection and education seems a fallacy. no one throws 20 teenagers into a room with a bunch of dead cats and says "figure it out!" there's a teacher, there's someone overseeing to make sure the kids don't use the intestines as a boa or fling cat hearts at other kids.
posted by nadawi at 5:50 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh, I am literally at the Society for Neuroscience convention right now and these guys have a booth there and someone was questioning them on the ethics of it all. Coincidence for the win, I guess! That said, the kits are cool and getting kids interested in neuroscience is hard because a lot of it is kind of a sludge of work to get the cool results and really not accessible to younger age kids. The guys at the booth were noting that there is no real way to look at neuroscience related stuff without using animals with nervous systems. That said, they did have some boxes that used electrodes that you place on your muscles and look out the output, so no animals harmed there!
posted by katers890 at 10:28 AM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


comparing this to dissection and education seems a fallacy. no one throws 20 teenagers into a room with a bunch of dead cats and says "figure it out!" there's a teacher, there's someone overseeing to make sure the kids don't use the intestines as a boa or fling cat hearts at other kids.

Ugh. Not to get off-topic too far but dissecting cats was far more troubling to me than dissecting humans. I knew the humans had given consent (or their families did, anyway) and in most cases had led full lives. The buckets of dead cats were there because lazy humans couldn't be bothered to spay/neuter their damn pets. Our professor told us the cats were free, and the humane society was happy to donate them so they wouldn't have to pay for their disposal.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 2:17 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


comparing this to dissection and education seems a fallacy. no one throws 20 teenagers into a room with a bunch of dead cats and says "figure it out!" there's a teacher, there's someone overseeing to make sure the kids don't use the intestines as a boa or fling cat hearts at other kids.

Did I miss the part where anyone was suggesting that building a robo-roach should be unsupervised?
posted by FrereKhan at 11:54 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the roach surgery instruction video for anybody who hasn't already seen exactly what we're talking about here.
posted by flabdablet at 2:23 AM on November 13, 2013


holy shit you cut off its antennae? Right, that's kind of evil.
posted by angrycat at 3:27 AM on November 13, 2013


did i miss the part where anyone talked about this only be done under supervision and not as entertainment?
posted by nadawi at 6:01 AM on November 13, 2013


holy shit you cut off its antennae? Right, that's kind of evil

(a) It's a cockroach; a creature which were I not experimenting on it I would have no qualms about smashing flat. Cracking the sads about shortening its antennae strikes me as rather precious.

(b) If you clip off the remaining tips where you stuck the wires in, and pull the third wire out of its thorax, and let it live long enough to moult one more time: oh look! New antennae.

Truncating cockroach antennae is so not comparable to docking dogs' tails or branding calves. It just isn't.
posted by flabdablet at 7:59 AM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's only cruel if you make your RoboRoach walk into a roach trap.

I'd get this for my kid for xmas, but she's on BlackBerry and you just know they haven't made the controller app for that platform.
posted by colie at 8:48 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Truncating cockroach antennae is so not comparable to docking dogs' tails

True. As far as I know, docking dogs' tails is more or less pain free (if not entirely sensation-free) as it's usually done by wrapping a rubber band around the tail at birth, which eventually dies/sloughs off. Also, the dogs don't need them in order to live (and in most cases, are specifically bred to benefit from the lack of a tail; keeping a tail may in fact be detrimental to some breeds' health, though we can talk about the ethics of dog breeding elsewhere)

For me, it's not so much of an "all creatures great and small" thing that irks me about this, as I've certainly killed plenty of roaches with no qualms. It's the "Kids! Control an animal with your phone! MUAHAHAHA!" mad-scientist vibe that it gives off. Seems like the kind of toy that will laughed at as horrifyingly misguided in 40 years, the way "Atomic Energy Labs" from the 50's are today.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:28 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


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