Would you have any ethical qualms about controlling a cockroach's brain?

The RoboRoach will be marketed to US kids from November. It has always seemed mystifying that researchers struggle to see the thorny side of their technologies.

Most people find it much easier to accept approval than to take the blame. It turns out that we don’t always weasel out of things deliberately – it’s just what human beings do.

This revelation comes from a study published this month by neuroscientists at University College London. Volunteers pressed a button that triggered a sound – a cheer, a note of disgust or something neutral – and then estimated the time that had elapsed between pressing the button and hearing the sound.

Though the elapsed time was always the same, the volunteers getting applause underestimated it and those getting a negative reaction after pressing the button made a gross overestimation.

Patrick Haggard, who led the research, interprets this distortion as showing that people feel more “agency” when things go right: they see a direct connection between their action and a positive result but unconsciously distance themselves from things that go wrong. When children and politicians say, “It wasn’t me,” they might not be lying: that could be their perception.

It is an interesting result to apply to people who put science and technology to work. Take the RoboRoach. From November, kids across the US will be able to buy a kit that allows them to feed a steering signal from a smartphone directly into a cockroach’s brain – creating, in effect, a remotecontrolled insect.

The inventors seem not to have any ethical qualms about the idea. Rather, they argue that it is a “great way to learn about neuro-technology”. It is certainly a good way to explore how scientists and engineers filter their sense of responsibility. At best, the RoboRoach encourages the oversimplification of neuroscience. The message is that you can make an electronic incursion into brain circuits and take control of actions. In the US, a few neuroscientists are already testifying in court that an image of a small region of the brain filling with blood can be interpreted to mean that an individual wasn’t responsible for a criminal action. If RoboRoach does create a new generation of neuroscientists, we really are in trouble.

There are deeper issues here. The technology for RoboRoach grew out of projects to co-opt insects as mobile sensor units. Researchers have already performed neurosurgery on beetles, grafting in electronics that make them take off and fly to a specific location. Put a camera, a microphone or a temperature sensor on their back and you have a new set of eyes and ears. It’s a wonderful idea, say its developers: cyborg beetles could help us find people trapped in collapsed buildings after earthquakes.

Similarly wonderful – superficially, at least – is the Robo Raven, developed at the University of Maryland. It is a rather beautiful drone that flaps its wings, performs aerobatics and was natural-looking enough in field trials to be mobbed by other birds. “This is just the beginning: the possibilities are virtually endless,” says S K Gupta, the lead researcher on the project. One clear possibility is that the Robo Raven will function as a surveillance drone that is almost undetectable in the natural world.

It has always seemed mystifying that researchers struggle to see the thorny side of their technologies. It’s not just a military issue – Google, Facebook and the NSA all think that they are making the world a better place and that any downsides of their operations are not their fault. Now we know why: they can’t help it.

Neuroscience and cockroaches: a match made in heaven? Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.