Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Must-Have Christmas Toy of 2012: The Tickle-Me Bionic Cockroach

A pair of grad students in Michigan has started a line of educational toys designed to teach kids the basics of neuroscience by letting them hack roaches and rewire their nervous systems. These 21st-century Lincoln Logs are going by the trade name Backyard Brains.

Their first kit, the SpikerBox, encourages kids to cut off a roach's leg ("don't worry, they can grow back," the instructions reassure us) and hook up each end to electrodes in order to listen to the neurons fire, or "spike," in response to stimulus. A more advanced experiment with the same kit encourages kids to feed similar electrical impulses back into another roach leg to reanimate it post-amputation.

These guys should look into product tie-ins for the new "Frankenweenie" movie.

But their most ambitious kit (currently in beta) is the "RoboRoach," pictured above. With this toy, kids are encouraged to glue fine electrodes into a roach's amputated antennae, pierce its carapace with a ground wire, and glue a circuitboard onto its back. Apparently all of this can be accomplished with your typical 8th-grade level neurosurgery skills. Here's the instruction video:

Once the wiring is complete, you'll have hours of fun sending artificial antennae stimuli into the roach's nervous system, forcing it to turn left or right by remote control.

The Backyard Brains kits are more humane than your typical bio lab dissection — so why they feel so creepy to me? Maybe I'm just feeling the cultural warnings of Mary Shelley's famous nightmare. These toys anticipate a future in which the kids who play with them will hack into human nervous systems. But they're also one more sign that "nature" is completely bound up with — and increasingly subject to — the progress of our technology.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would argue that dissection of a dead animal is much more humane than amputating the limbs of and inserting electrodes into a living animal.