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Robot cockroaches invade social networks

Posted on | November 16, 2007 | No Comments

Cockroaches have become one of my odder fascinations since my arrival in South East Asia several years ago. My first apartment in Quezon City came complete with about 300 coprophagous house guests, cockroaches. My neighbors were rather fond of hoarding roach habitats, as such I was stuck with roaches for months.

Rather than go on a roach killing spree, I took the opportunity to study them because I noticed that they behaved rather differently than the cockroaches in my old Baltimore neighborhood. This was one of the hobbies that led me to really advance my interest and knowledge of small world (social) networks.

Researchers have spent great lengths figuring out why cockroaches are so amazingly smart. On a fundamental level, roaches display near human like social behavior. Time just ran a piece describing roach robots that infiltrate a colony of cockroaches for the express purpose of altering the collective behavior of its members.

Roaches are not very discerning when it comes to accepting a new member of the pack. If it moves like a roach, smells like a roach and is approximately the same size as a roach, its a roach (to a cockroach). Try saying that three times fast. If a nine volt battery smelled like a roach and scurried around, it would be accepted as a member of the pack.

If they want to build a robot roach that leads cockroaches to any location (out of one’s home would be nice), they need to make a robot that poops. So, in light of this research, I will endeavor to make a matchbox sized pooping robotic roach.

Most cockroaches (unless reproducing) have 3 main instincts, hide, eat, poop. When a roach eliminates (poops), its actually leaving a chemical trail for other roaches to follow. Therefore, a robot that found the ‘darkest’ path out of a dwelling , pooping along the way could conceivably draw the roaches out of the walls and into the open where they could be effectively dealt with. I’ve seen micro robotic kits with cheap thermopile arrays sold as low as $40 that could easily serve this purpose.

Plasticine clay tainted with proper smells would be the robo poop. The article is very neat, it shows that cheap robots can be used for this kind of research and do, in fact, alter the behavior of cockroaches.

As with humans, if cockroaches possess ‘common sense’, collective behavior seems to over-ride such wisdom. Robotic roaches can flock together in hiding places that would (normally) not appeal to roaches. The real roaches happily followed the robots to less than ideal shelters, even when darker and more secure spots were available.

My only concern is ensuring that ‘influenced’ roaches do not escape to reproduce, their adaptation over the past million or so years clearly demonstrates that they are quick to abandon behavior that reduces their numbers. If we aren’t careful, they may become harder than ever to get rid of.

I hope that I didn’t ruin your lunch, I know that I’m weird, its my job to be weird.


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