Facebook Using AI to Describe Photos to the Blind

As any user of Facebook will immediately tell you, photos play a major function in sharing of life stories. From hiking mountains to capturing the beauty of a well-prepared dinner, photos add to the story tremendously. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? (And thus the success of emoticons, I think).

But what if those photos cannot be seen by visually challenged FB friends? Not to worry. Facebook’s engineers have harnessed the power of an artificial intelligence network (AI)  to describe these pictures to blind or partially blind users.

Facebook calls the system “automatic alternative text” and it’s based on a neural network primed with billions of parameters and millions of examples. Such neural networks – vast, complex databases designed to mimic the human brain as closely as possible – are playing an increasingly important role in modern computing.

The AI doesn’t actually “see” what is in the photo, and, as with all things computer at the moment, doesn’t understand context (and context is vital for a true understanding of photos). Rather, the AI compares the objects in the image with its “its vast internal database of similar photos and make an educated guess about what’s being shown.”

As to context, part of the challenge is in getting computers to recognize what’s most important in an image, whether that’s the people, the background, or the “action.” This requires a great more programming, but that’s in the future.

For now, the AI system returns a confidence score indicating how sure it is that it can identify what’s in the picture. If this is above 80 percent, an automatically-generated caption appears. 


When objects and people have been identified, Facebook’s software constructs a sentence to describe the picture, usually ordered by how confident the AI is about the presence of each element. If there’s some ambiguity about the picture then the sentence starts with “image may contain” to express that uncertainty.

The feature is live now in the Facebook iOS app, as long as your language is set to English and you’re in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Facebook says it hopes to roll out the service to more platforms, languages and markets in the near future. It actually works with any screen reader software – on iOS you can enable it via the VoiceOver tool in the Accessibility section of Settings (under General), for example.

I wonder what the AI writes about such photos:


Call a Doc

So, you have a sore throat but you can’t get in to see a doctor for a few days. What do you do?

If things advance as technology allows, you can phone your doctor or contact her on the Internet, and be attended to virtually. It’s called “telemedicine” and the idea is gaining traction around the world. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal:

“Driven by faster internet connections, ubiquitous smartphones and changing insurance standards, more health providers are turning to electronic communications to do their jobs—and it’s upending the delivery of health care.”

In some cases, it makes sense.

“Doctors are linking up with patients by phone, email and webcam. They’re also consulting with each other electronically—sometimes to make split-second decisions on heart attacks and strokes. Patients, meanwhile, are using new devices to relay their blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs to their doctors so they can manage chronic conditions at home.”

It’s not just locally that this makes sense, either.

“Telemedicine also allows for better care in places where medical expertise is hard to come by. Five to 10 times a day, Doctors Without Borders relays questions about tough cases from its physicians in Niger, South Sudan and elsewhere to its network of 280 experts around the world, and back again via the internet.”

While it might seem a new idea, “More than 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely last year, according to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group, which expects those numbers to grow by 30% this year.”

But not all is bright on the horizon. There are serious questions about the quality and qualifications of the doctors who practice telemedicine, and questions about who will foot the cost. “Some critics … question whether the quality of care is keeping up with the rapid expansion of telemedicine. And there’s the question of what services physicians should be paid for: Insurance coverage varies from health plan to health plan, and a big federal plans covers only a narrow range of services.”

“Critics worry that such services may be sacrificing quality for convenience. Consulting a random doctor patients will never meet, they say, further fragments the health-care system, and even minor issues such as upper respiratory infections can’t be thoroughly evaluated by a doctor who can’t listen to your heart, culture your throat or feel your swollen glands.”

As to the question of qualifications, the WSJ discusses one example:

“First Opinion, connects users with doctors in India for web chats, but a disclaimer states that these are merely ‘social interactions.’ If a prescription or lab test is warranted, a locally licensed doctor joins the conversation for a $39 fee. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Are such services ‘practicing medicine’ without a license? The exact definition varies from state to state, and state medical boards generally don’t investigate unless a patient files a formal complaint. Even then, boards have jurisdiction only over individual doctors licensed in their state, not companies, or physicians overseas, says Ms. Robbin of the Federation of State Medical Boards.”

There’s also the problem of “branding” medical providers (though we have that already, with mega-medical groups). “Telemedicine is also shaking up traditional relationships between providers and payers and fueling the rise of medical ‘megabrands’ whose experts are increasingly competing for patients in each other’s backyards.”

It will be interesting to see where all of this leads. People are not happy with the current state of insurance and medical care available in the US, and elsewhere in the world. What Brave New World awaits us on this front?

Wrangling Atoms to Create Rewritable Memory

Shelves of paper catalogues in the main reading room of the US Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson building. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I saw this article on nature.com and paused. I wouldn’t even have glanced at the article a few months ago, but that was before I began the ongoing edit of a book on parallel process coding to increase the speed of applications (I know, it rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?).

But here was a new angle, using atoms to overcome the physical limitation of Moore’s Law to increase memory in smartphones and computers. Moore’s law famously predicts that the number of transistors people can squeeze onto memory chips will double every couple of years, but as of now, Moore’s law seems to have reached a limit: technology cannot be miniaturized indefinitely.

Researchers are trying to get around this limitation by starting small—using individual atoms—to make big gains in data-storage capacity. Now, a team has developed a 1-kilobyte rewritable data-storage device using chlorine atoms arranged on a small metal surface. According to a researchers report on 18 July in Nature Nanotechnology, if the team expanded that surface to one square centimeter, it could hold about 10 terabytes of information. This is HUGE news!

“It’s by far the largest assembly on an atomic scale that’s ever been created, and it outperforms state-of-the-art hard disk drives by orders of magnitude in data capacity,” says lead study author Sander Otte, a physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Otte and his team have arranged chlorine atoms into square grids on a copper surface, and then placed those grids side-by-side, like uninterrupted terraces. Each grid contains a few empty slots, or holes. This allows the research team to move atoms around, much like sliding pieces around in a tile puzzle. Each line on a grid encodes one unit of digital information called a ‘byte.’

Otte’s team uses a scanning tunnelling microscope with a sharp needle, like the tiniest of tweezers, to probe the atoms and make them hop into adjacent spaces. One chlorine atom and one vacancy make one bit (there are 8 bits in one byte). Moving chlorine atoms in and out of vacant spots means researchers can switch between ones and zeroes, the basis for all computer code.

This pattern of atoms and vacant spaces encodes the letter ‘e’ (Courtesy TU Delft)

One of the big drawbacks of this device is that it must be kept at –196 °C: the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. This is a far cry from room temperature. But, “It’s very nice proof-of-principle work, demonstrating the first step of applying this technique of atomic manipulation to something that could lead to a functional memory device,” says Stefan Fölsch, a materials physicist at the Paul Drude Institute for Solid State Electronics in Berlin.

If researchers can find a solution or work-around for the current physical constraints and limitations to this atomic technology, they could eventually scale the technology up to larger structures and arrange their grids in three dimensions, then one could pack hundreds of terabytes—equivalent to all the information contained in the US Library of Congress—into a cube the size of a grain of salt. Further improvements could prove useful to data storage in the cloud, reducing the need for new data centers, which are currently dotting landscapes around the globe like fast-growing lichen.

But data storage is just one application. “Otte’s research gets people interested in thinking about what we want to do on an atomic scale,” says Chris Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research at Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. In the long term, Otte and his colleagues’ research could pave the way to designing new materials, atom by atom.

A huge fan of nanotechnology, I hope to be around for new developments in the years to come. I KNEW that small could be dynamic!


College Kids’ Dream: Self-Cleaning Clothes


Welcome the upcoming advent of the college kid’s dream: self-cleaning clothing, as reported in Gizmag and elsewhere.

I love drying clothes outside, but it’s getting harder to do in big cities, or in condo environments where such a display of “low status” is frowned up. But drying clothes outside is healthier for you than drying them in a machine inside, due to the risk of generating harmful dryer emissions inside.

Plus, sunlight kills germs, so not only do your clothes have that fresh-air scent, but the little beasties that might still be hiding in the cloth are likely now defunct.

Thanks to research by scientists in China, we might soon not only revert to drying our clothes outside, but we might also end up cleaning our clothes by hanging them outside.

Scientists in China have reportedly successfully removed orange dye stains from cotton fabric, through the power of sunlight and a special fabric coating.

Mingce Long and Deyong Wu created the coating, which combines titanium dioxide (a good sunblock agent) and nitrogen (this element forms about 78% of Earth’s atmosphere and is the most abundant uncombined element).

When exposed to sunlight, dirt on fabric treated with the coating breaks down, and microbes die. While the coating in its basic form is effective, it was found that it does an even better job at dispersing dye coloration when silver and iodine nanoparticles are added. Additionally, it is able to remain intact and active after washing and drying.

Although light-activated self-cleaning fabrics have been created previously, all of those required concentrated ultraviolet light, as opposed to natural sunlight. Good news for consumers, who have more access to sunlight than to concentrated ultraviolet light (unless they are growers of a particular consumable).

Should the dirt-dispersing coating eventually be commercialized, however, there are doubtless many people who would want nothing to do with it. Although titanium dioxide is now an active ingredient in products such as sunscreen, cosmetics, and paint, studies have shown that it can cause genetic damage in mice and brain damage in fish. This has led to concerns over the effect that it could have on humans, and the environment.

Remember fire-retardant pajamas for little kids? Researchers found the chemicals coating the fabric in the pajamas were to blame for:

  • thyroid disruption
  • early onset of puberty
  • cognitive problems
  • delayed mental and physical development

The chemicals used to make pajamas and other consumer products flame-retardant also showed up in water, wildlife, and human breast milk.

So, perhaps we’ll tread lightly into the sunwashable fabric promise, lest we look great but cannot remember our names.

A paper on the coating was recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

I’m Rubber, You’re Glue: Icephobic Coating Repels Ice


Generally-speaking, hard objects and soft objects don’t bond well together. It comes down to a principle known as ‘interfacial cavitation,’ in which one surface (the soft one) deforms under pressure, while the other (the hard one) does not -– as a result, they pop apart. Now, scientists at the University of Michigan have used that principle to develop one of the most ice-repellent coatings ever made. Its applications could range from airplane wings to car windshields to freezers. (Those are the logical applications; I imagine all kinds of unique applications will follow, as people use their imagination…)

Previously, most anti-ice coatings have been rigid and slippery, with the idea being that what repels liquid water should also repel ice. According to the U Michigan team, however, that line of thought was flawed.

“Nobody had explored the idea that rubberiness can reduce ice adhesion,” says associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering Anish Tuteja. “Ice is frozen water, so people assumed that ice-repelling surfaces had to also repel water. That was very limiting.”

Instead of creating an ice-repelling solution, the team, led by Tuteja, created a rubbery coating, made from a blend of commonly available synthetic rubbers, such as polyurethane. The resulting clear spray-on coating, while somewhat tacky to the touch, might at first seem like it would “hold onto” the ice, but the fact is that the hard ice easily releases when the soft rubber deforms -– and the hardened ice slips off the surface. All that is required is the force of gravity, or a slight breeze.

By tweaking the composition of the coating, it is possible to select for factors such as durability versus ice repellency. This means that a coating designed for airplane wings could be very durable, as high winds would already blow much of the ice away, while a coating for industrial freezers would be more repellent, allowing ice to be shed with little effort.


The coating would also find instant users in the frozen North, where keeping windshields ice free is a constant battle. Despite not being able to repel water, the rubbery coating was able to stop ice from setting on the surfaces because of the previously mentioned interfacial cavitation. As the rubbery surface changes forms when exposed to even small amounts of force, it effectively prevents ice from becoming tightly bonded to it.

Put Your Voice in a Pot; Pour It Out When Done

Remember those cartoons you watched as a child, where people would be speaking in a snowstorm or on a bitter cold day, and their voices would freeze, and they’d have to take them home to thaw out the words out to hear what they’d said?

Well, today, “freezing” your voice for later has a new twist. It’s not a tape recorder, but something more fun: it’s a teapot recorder. Called ‘Otopot,’ the device lets you store and then pour away your voice like water.


It’s a simple, and captivating, idea.

To begin a recording, you simply remove the lid on the pot. You can then record up to a minute-long message.  You could serve the rechargeable pot alongside your significant other’s cup of coffee in the morning, or place one on a child’s nightstand after he or she falls asleep at night so they have an uplifting message to greet them in the morning. Imagine your voice flowing like water…

Once the recording is heard, the recipient can listen to it repeatedly simply by removing the lid. When it’s time to erase the message, one simply tips the pot as if pouring out water and the recording vanishes. The pot can only hold one recording at a time, so it becomes a fun way to hold a very unusual form of conversation.

Sure, it’s a simple matter to leave a sticky-note message for a loved one or family member, but how much more appealing would a voice memo be, complete with verbally conveyed emotions?

Click here to see how to use the James Dyson Award-winning Otopot, and the components of the talking water jug.


Understanding that people might like to send clever messages in something other than a pot, the designers created a removable ‘Otopot core,’ which can be placed inside a birthday box or any other object with a lid.

“OTOPOT” was nominated for a grand prix and awarded 2 sponsor prizes at GUGEN 2014 (a largest competition of original electrical hardware in Japan).

Currently, the student inventors, Takeshi Katayama and Shota Kumiji, are finishing up their studies but say they plan to launch the concept via a crowdfunding campaign later this year.

Will it change the world? Likely not. Will it captivate the imagination of creative types and lovers? I would think so. It would also lead to misuse, I would think, to send mean messages instead of loving memos. In that case, I would suggest the name StinkPot.

3-D Printed Ear Bones Grow in Mice


I am neither an entrepreneur nor a technology visionary. (I had initially scoffed that Web pages would simply be glorified Yellow Page ads.) I am not an early adopter of technology. I am more a third-generation user, typically all-in once my skepticism has been allayed. (While I was content with my flip-phone with its rudimentary camera, I am THRILLED that I discovered the elegance and power of the smartphone. How did we ever live without an iPhone?)

Needless to say, I scoffed at the idea of 3D printing. So you can print 3D puzzles, big deal. So you can print a model tower for an architecture presentation, big whoop. Oh, me. I am so NOT a visionary!

Today’s blog is on how 3D printing is changing science and medicine, one tiny ear bone at a time.

According to Gizmag.com, 3D printed tissues and organs have shown real potential in addressing shortages of available donor tissue for people in need of transplants, but the biggest obstacle to success has been having them take root and survive after implantation.

But in an epic life-changing success, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have used with a newly-developed 3D printer to produce human-scale muscle structures that matured into functional tissue after being implanted into animals.

Researchers have been exploring bioprinting as a means of replacing damaged tissue for several years now. The difficulty in replicating the complexities of human tissue has been extremely difficult, however, with scientists testing the waters with specialized bio-inks and various purpose-built printers in an effort to produce usable, engineered tissue. Every failure is a success, though, in the search for the perfect “ink” for such enterprises.

After more than a decade, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center are engineering structures of adequate size and strength to implant in the human body, using the team’s Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP), which is claimed to overcome the limitations of previous bioprinting approaches.

It spouts water-based gels that contain the cells, along with biodegradable polymers arranged in a latticed pattern and a temporary outer structure.


The water-based gels were optimized to promote cell growth and health. This, combined with micro-channels that allow nutrients and oxygen from the body to permeate the structure, allows the system to remain alive while it develops a system of blood vessels.

To demonstrate its capabilities when it comes to soft tissue structures, the team used the system to produce muscle tissue, implanting it in rats and finding that two weeks later it was robust enough to permit blood flow and induce nerve formation. Using human stem cells, the system also printed jaw bone fragment large enough for a facial reconstruction and implanted them in rats. Five months later, the structures had matured into vascularized bone tissue.


Previously, engineered tissue structures without ready-made blood cells needed to be smaller than 200 microns in order for the cells to survive, but this new approach solves that problem. The researchers used ITOP to produce baby-sized ear structures measuring 1.5 in (3.8 cm) long, which were implanted under the skin of mice in the lab and went on to show signs of vascularization one and two months later.

Further adding to ITOP’s potential is its ability to take data from CT or MRI scans and make individually designed (bespoke) tissue for patients. So if a patients is missing a particular piece of tissue, such as a section of ear or nose, for example, the system could theoretically reproduce a precise replica.

“This novel tissue and organ printer is an important advance in our quest to make replacement tissue for patients,” says Anthony Atala, senior author on the study. “It can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape. With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.”

The researchers will continue to explore the approach to track longer term results. Their current study is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Technology limited only by imagination. H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, what do you think? Any ideas? And Edward Scissorhands, ready for a makeover?

Next-Gen Football Helmets

The up-and-coming professional football player Chris Borland, of the San Francisco 49ers, is now leaving the sport out of concern that a career in football would increase his risk of brain disease. But what types of neurological problems have been linked with football, and how might these arise?

On Monday (March 16), Borland announced he was retiring from football after studying the link between football head injuries and degenerative brain disease, and discussing his decision with friends, family members, concussion researchers, and teammates, according to ESPN.

The NFL is doing what it can to solve its head trauma issue through an ongoing evaluation and revision of its rules. Rules are changing regarding definition of “vicious hit,” and guidelines are being adopted to protect players, both offensive and defensive.

But certainly, one aspect of the game that must change, especially for younger players who haven’t yet learned to protect themselves, is the design of the helmet, which must be better able to absorb an impact from other players or the ground.

Several companies are working on designs to mitigate head impacts.

University of Michigan researchers have entered the race to build a lightweight, more affordable and more effective football helmet, with a system they’ve called Mitigatium. The design incorporates three different layers that are meant to blunt some dangerous physics that today’s helmet designs ignore.

According to the researchers involved in the project, current helmets do a good job of preventing the peak force of an impact that can cause skull fractures, but they still let the brain dissipate the energy created by that hit.

The outer two layers of the Mitigatium system takes the brunt of impact. (Credit: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering)
The inner layer of the Mitigatium system dissipates the force to better-protect the brain. (Credit: Evan Dougherty, Michigan Engineering)
The Mitigatium is the latest football helmet designed to reduce the likelihood of players receiving traumatic brain injuries. (Credit: Steve Alvey, Michigan Engineering)

The University of Michigan researchers are focused on creating a helmet that absorbs the negative effects of impulse –- the secondary effect of an initial force or hit that may be the cause of brain injury in football players. They explain that impulse is what gives objects momentum and energy. Given the speed and weight of current football players, helmets need to be designed to block or reduce the forces of both impulse and impact.

In developing their prototype, the researchers found studies from 70 years ago that blamed impulse for damage caused by the quick, hard hits sustained in football. Yet, the results of those studies don’t seem to have made it into the long-standing designs used today.

After testing various materials in table-top collision simulators, the researchers found that the Mitigatium prototype did the best job, with a 20 percent reduction in impulse and a 30 percent reduction in peak pressure.

The three layers within the Mitigatium (seen above) include an initial layer of hard polycarbonate similar to what is used in helmet shells today, a second layer consisting of a flexible plastic, and a third layer that is described as having the consistency of dried tar. The first two layers work in tandem to reflect most of the initial force or incoming shock wave, while the third layer dissipates that force to reduce it even further. The overall effect is reduced impact to the brain.

There’s no indication as to when a helmet using Mitigatium might be put into production, since more studies and research must be completed. Other universities and companies are engaged in similar projects, including the University of Washington with its Zero1 helmet and Riddell’s Speedflex that was introduced in 2014.

Featuring an outer shell that yields upon impact like a car bumper, the Zero1 helmet is expected to be available to select NFL and NCAA football teams this spring and be worn in the 2016-17 season.

The Riddell Speedflex is designed with “crumple zones,” which will protect a player’s head upon impact. It is now generally accepted that it’s safer for vehicles to feature impact-absorbing crumple zones. With that in mind, that’s what Riddell’s new SpeedFlex helmet does … Just to be clear, the SpeedFlex doesn’t actually crumple under pressure. It does, however, have a built-in hinged rubber-padded panel located on the front near the top. In head-on collisions with other players (or the ground), this panel gives by up to a quarter of an inch (6 mm), helping to absorb the impact.


Veemo: Urban Ride of the Future

Many of us have used bicycle-sharing programs in a city or perhaps used a car-sharing co-op, such as Car2Go in Calgary.The Car2Go is a great option for people who don’t own cars but have errands to run or groceries to buy. It’s also a great option for business folks in town for a day who want to see a bit of the city outside downtown.


Bikes are also fun for touring, but not everyone wants to pedal when they must get somewhere, especially when dressed up or in bad weather. And car-sharing co-ops require a driver’s license.


But there is a new form of transportation on the horizon, the Veemo Velomobile.

The Vancouver-based startup is developing a point-to-point service that will allow users to rent a sort of e-bike/car hybrid, the Veemo™.


Pedalled vehicles, known as velocars, were a popular mode of urban transportation in France during the 1930s and 1940s. These machines were breaking cycling speed records before being declared ineligible to race by cycling’s governing body. Inspired by this concept, VeloMetro is building Veemo to meet the demands of 21st century urban residents.


According to Veemo co-founder Kody Baker, studies have shown that more than half the population of many major cities would like to bike to work, but people don’t want to have to wear biking gear or helmets, and don’t want to have to worry about storing their bikes once they arrive.

The Veemo is built to address all of those issues, says Baker.

The Veemo is a tricycle enclosed in an aerodynamic body that provides protection from the elements. Think electric bike encased in a racing shell. Although users do pedal it, their pedaling power is augmented by a built-in electric motor, taking the trike up to an electronically limited top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h).

The shell ensures that the rider stays out of the elements, and obviates the need for a helmet. And the motor enhancement should mean that the rider won’t work up a sweat, so there is no need for a change of clothing. (Fitness-conscious users could dial down the motor-assist, if desired.)


The vehicles are technically classified as bicycles, not cars, so no license or registration are necessary to drive one, and its slim size allows for it to easily fit in bike lanes and parking areas. If that top end were any higher, the Veemo would be classified as a motor vehicle, and users would require a license.

Svelt as it looks, it wouldn’t be for just any user, I think. The target weight of the final client-ready version is 120 kg (265 lb). I suspect that a tricycle would be pretty stable, but I question how tip-averse it would be on a downhill with tight turns.

Other features of the vehicle include a composite monocoque body with integrated crumple zones, an aluminum composite sandwich frame, an automatic transmission (including a reverse gear), hydraulic disc brakes, and a full LED lighting system.

Plans call for users to pay a flat rate of CAD$0.28 (currently about US$0.20) per minute, payable using an app. The veemos would be parked in motorcycle spots and other drop-off locations for easy retrieval.

A though occurs: given its comparably light weight, what would keep a person from lifting one of the vehicles into the back of a pickup truck and taking off with it? These and other issues are being resolved, I would guess, as the fleet preparation is underway.

“We’re working with the City of Vancouver to get a few vehicles in with their private city staff fleet, so they’re going to be our early beta testers,” says Baker. “Then we’ll have a pilot fleet out at the University of British Columbia, for students and staff to ride around campus.”

The first Veemo-sharing service for the general public should subsequently be rolled out in Vancouver sometime next year, with other Pacific Northwest cities to follow soon after. And if you want a Veemo of your own, there are plans for individual sales to commence sometime in the future.


Robo-Roaches: Redux

I’ve never been a big fan of the Frankenstein or Dracula oeuvre. Truth is, I am greatly disturbed by the manipulation of the natural order. I detested H. G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau. All I can think about is the psychic anguish of the laboratory creatures.

So, I am a bit disturbed by the latest research with cockroaches. Sure, they’re cockroaches, but they are independently functioning creatures. I’m not sure about using them as live-specimen robots.

I posted yesterday about research being conducted to create cockroach-inspired robots as first-responders after a disaster, or for use in espionage.

Today, I write about cockroach robots themselves, actual cockroaches that are being wired for control by humans. Not science fiction. Reality.


Years in the making, and a contender for the most revolting creation to emerge from a laboratory, the robo-roach has arrived.

Built by engineers in Texas, the robotic insect fuses a live cockroach with a miniature computer that is wired into the animal’s nervous system. At the push of a button, a human operator can control the creature — or at least which way it scuttles.

Power to the Insects

Hong Liang, who led the research at Texas A&M University, said the controllable insect could carry tiny video cameras, microphones, and other sensors to gather information from places where humans would rather not be: collapsed buildings, broken sewers, and politician’s hotel rooms.

“Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human,” Liang told the Guardian. “We wanted to find ways to work with them.”

The US team made tiny backpacks for the cockroaches and attached them to the roaches with paint. Each backpack contained a computer chip that could send signals down a pair of fine wires into nerves that controlled legs on either side of the cockroach. With a rechargeable lithium battery to power the device, the total weight of the backpack was less than 3g, approximately the weight of a U.S. penny.

Stutter-Step Turns

The scientists remotely control the direction in which the cockroach walks by stimulating nerves on either side of its body. When cockroaches walk, the three legs on each side move in time with each other. But the electrical pulses disrupt this, making the middle leg fall out of step with the others. If you pulse the left leg, the legs on the right side work in concert, and the body turns toward the weaker left side. Sort of like paddling a canoe: if the oars on the right side work in concert and the oars on the left are out of step, the canoe will turn toward the left. And vice versa.

The system is far from perfect. In tests when robotic roaches were held on little leashes, the insects could be steered about 70 percent of the time. But when the insects were left to roam free, the remote control worked only 60 percent of the time. It might take several jabs of the button to make them turn, even then. Liang is not disheartened though: the robotic cockroach, reported in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, is still a prototype.

How useful robotic roaches prove to be will depend in part on how much gadgetry they can carry. Liang says that some cockroaches can carry five times their own body weight, but the heavier the load, the greater the toll it takes on their performance. “We did an endurance test and they do get tired,” Liang said. “We put them on a treadmill for a minute and then let them rest. If the backpack is lighter, they can go on for longer.”

Ethical Issues?

Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh, has reservations about the work. “As much as the technology is interesting, there are a lot of ethical issues before we go down that line, even with cockroaches. Whenever you interface with another biological system, you have to look at whether the means justifies the ends. It’s something we have to debate,” he said.

Even with cockroaches, perhaps we must consider self-determination. There, I actually said it.