A cockroach-controlled mobile robot was premiered to an audience of computer scientists and artists in 2004 by Garnet Hertz, then a graduate student in Visual Studies from UCI. Hertz began by gingerly placing a giant Madagascar hissing cockroach on a trackball soldered in the middle of a small three-wheeled robotic vehicle. Then he lowered the harness – a “seatbelt” made up of an adjustable bar with Velcro at the end – onto the roach’s back. Now held in place, the roach’s scuttling legs would roll the trackball, which drove the vehicle in the direction it scurried.
To provide the roach with a better sense of its surroundings, Hertz also strung a line of lights around the vehicle. These were distance sensitive lights that reacted to obstacles ahead – a feature that Hertz hoped would provide the roach with an intelligible sense of direction since the lights should cause roach to instinctively turn away, effectively maneuvering around the obstacle.
The project was initially termed “Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” after Nobert Wiener’s famous book on cybernetics. Although the “animal” of the title is largely glossed over today, its use was adopted quite literally by Weiner. Not only did Weiner illustrate many cybernetic concepts through wild lifeforms, cybernetics was also deeply influenced by the field of behaviorism, an empirical tradition built on a morbid history of mutilated dogs, monkeys, mice, and pigeons. Decades before Hertz was getting roaches to avoid obstacles with pulsating lights, psychologist B. F. Skinner had trained pecking pigeons to home bombs on targets. Three trained kamikaze pigeons belted at the front of the warhead were conditioned to peck through potholes at the enemy ships that it saw. A metal sensor was attached to their beaks, and the direction of the bomb would adjust depending on where the birds pecked, compensating for the error of the missile.
The robotic roach experiment reminds us, however, that animal augmentation may come with more benevolent intents. Even as the robot was built for human intrigue, the sight of a cockroach strapped in the vehicle led many onlookers to overcome their fear and get close to the creature, even sympathizing with its imprisonment in the cybernetic device.
The augmented roach is enabling us to see the world in a different way.
The desire to be shook, to be hit by a world-changing experience, is an understandable want. But this desire is often fashioned as a solitary experience, at best a networked one, where everyone gets the same chills binging on the same video. Can we think of a more symbiotic possibility to the shook? If “shook” is fundamentally defined by a fracture of experience, what can challenge our worldview more than including those who were never considered equal participants of the world in the first place? A system that is designed to awaken the young should reverberate beyond, including also the old, disabled, feeble; the dogs, monkeys, mice, roaches, and pigeons.
Treating the wild differently may bring the difference we desire.
Notes & Thanks:
The video of the cockroach-controlled mobile robot is courtesy of Garnet Hertz’s archives. An explanatory video of the project can be found on YouTube. The image of pigeon guided bomb (Project Orcon) was sourced from Reuben Hoggett’s archives.
- Lemov, Rebecca. World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005
- Pickering, Andrew. The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
- Pinto, Ana Teixeira. “The Pigeon in the Machine: The Concept of Control in Behaviorism and Cybernetics.” In Augmented Intelligence Traumas, edited by Matteo Pasquinelli, 23–36. Leuphana, Germany: Menson Press, 2015.
- Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2019.