Using cyborg beetles to save human lives

Is it okay to use insects in research for the greater good?

Soon, you might be seeing beetles carrying around little backpacks to help save human lives.

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed tiny cyborg insects in hopes of aiding search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. These insects are expected to crawl through tight, inaccessible spaces to find survivors trapped under rubble.

Small computers are attached to darkling beetles as tiny "backpacks". Their movements can be controlled with electrical pulses sent to their antennae through implanted electrodes.

However, the research has received backlash for its use of live insects.

Should live insects be used in research, even if it is for a social cause?

What's going on?

In 2015, the same NTU team did a similar joint research project with the University of California (UC) Berkeley. They developed a cyborg beetle for the same purpose of aiding SAR missions. 

In both studies, researchers shared that the beetles behaved and lived normally after the experiments, and were unharmed by the tiny gadget strapped on their backs.


The research team is working on adding sensors to the beetles' 'backpacks' that will help detect signs of human life, such as temperature and carbon dioxide.
PHOTO CREDIT: SCREENSHOT FROM THE STRAITS TIMES VIDEO

However, the team did not create robots, as that would require "complex algorithms" and "large amount of energy to operate", which might take weeks to assemble.

Amidst the backlash, some youths thought that it is acceptable to use living beetles in the study.


Some netizens felt that using live beetles for research should not be deemed as "animal cruelty".
PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK SCREENSHOT

"If the animal isn't harmed and it's for the greater good, I think it's okay.

"It boils down to whether or not the owner or person treats the animal well. As long as you put in effort to make sure the animal is comfortable, it's fine," said Terisha Tan, 19, a Singapore Polytechnic student.

Chow Zhen Yi, 20, shared similar sentiments.

"The use of electrical pulses seems synonymous with a neuroscientist giving electric shocks to make a patient move his arms and legs. If we don't consider his actions cruel, why think the same of this?

"I think both the neuroscientist and researcher bear no malevolence to their subjects, so I think the act itself isn't cruel," said the NSF.

However, others felt that despite the researchers' good intentions, using living creatures could have been prevented in the first place.


Invertebrates are not part of Singapore's ethics for animal experimentation, according to the National Advisory Committee for Laboratory Animal Research (NACLAR) Guidelines.
PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK SCREENSHOT

Redzuan Rahman, 27, who works in quality assurance, felt that researchers could consider investing funds in designing actual robots instead.

He said: "Since the purpose of an SAR mission is to save human lives, it is obviously an important endeavour. Therefore, scientists should be able to amass funds to create robots instead of using live beetles."

Similarly, Liyana Azlan, 19, believed that living insects should not have been used. 

"If they want to do this in the long run, I don't think it's fair for the beetles in general. They weren't created for us to control them," said the Kaplan student.

"If other countries can create intelligent robots, why can't we? Considering that it's for a better purpose, they should put in their hard work, time and energy to create the robots, because the intention is to help others."

 What's your take?

1. Is it acceptable to use live insects in research that may benefit the human population? Why?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment on our article or social media platforms! Submit the best response by Dec 14 and win a $20 Esplanade gift voucher.

TEASER AND BANNER PHOTO CREDIT: NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY VIA IEEE SPECTRUM