RoboRoach + Twitter = Crowdsourced cockroach steering

#cyborgcockroacheswillruletheworld

Artist Brittany Ransom has built a tiny cockroach backpack which lets her remote control a cockroach with Twitter. For science art! CNET has a video of the insectoid cyborg:

Ransom let visitors to the Chicago Artists' Coalition's exhibition Life, in some form control the roach by tweeting the hashtags #turnroachleft and #turnroachright at its twitter account, @tweetroach. Every thirty seconds, the winning hashtag was sent as a command to the insect through the RoboRoach control circuit.

Ransom passed on her artist's statement to CNET:

At what point does its intelligence and ability take over? How much does it take before we are all desensitized to overstimulation? As we, as human beings, grow more cyborgian and interconnected through social media, this project helps us participate in discovering the answer.

While Ransom's point is compelling, the real wizardry lies in the RoboRoach gear itself. Created and sold by neuroscience hackers Backyard Brains, the kit lets anyone build cyborg cockroaches at home (some assembly required).

After some minor roach surgery, it sends small electric currents to the roaches antennae, making it think it's running into a wall. Zap the left antennae, and it'll turn right, and vice-versa.

Backyard Brains describe the experiments you can do with the kit:

You can use this experimental model to teach your students about current neurotechnology. For example, 1) How long before the cockroach adapts to the stimulation and learns to ignore it?, and 2) What is the optimal circuit design to make the electronics as simple and light as possible?

It's like a 21st century spin to the idea that cockroaches will survive nuclear war: TwitterRoach will probably learn to adapt to and ignore twitter long before we do. The ultimate survivor indeed.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon