The Biobotic Tech Behind Pickle Rick’s Cockroach Mech Suit

Rick and Morty Season 3 delves into our cyborg insect future
  • Comedy
  • Science Fiction

In the latest episode of Rick and Morty Season 3, Rick Sanchez transmogrified into Pickle Rick. But while turning himself into a pickle was easy, Rick didn’t anticipate Izzi the cat nearly killing him by batting him into direct sunlight. Washed down a storm drain, Pickle Rick’s situation looked hopeless. Rick may be a genius, but what can a mind accomplish trapped in a body without limbs or any other method for interacting with the world?

Pickle Rick’s solution — riding and remote-controlling a cockroach by stimulating its brain with his tongue — was unlike many of Rick and Morty ’s more fantastical scenarios (like Inception dream devices and brain-swapping rays), instead riffing on a new technology that has quickly moved the control of cockroach brains and bodies from the future fringes of sci-fi into mainstream science and pop culture.

Just ten years after remote-controlled cockroaches were projected into The Fifth Element’s far future — 1997’s depiction of 2263 — teams of entomologists and electrical, computer and biomedical engineers began implementing microsystem platforms in hawkmoths, stimulating the ganglia and neck muscles with electrodes to control the insect’s flight. Cockroaches soon followed. The new field of biobotics, merging computer coordination and biological systems, has captured the mainstream imagination. Ted Danson remote-controlled cockroaches on CSI: Cyber. You can even buy your kids a control backpack for cockroaches.

“We are electrical engineers. We are not mad scientists trying to do science fiction in our labs,” Dr. Alper Bozkurt, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North Carolina State University and biobotic pioneer, told Player.One.

Since contributing to a 2007 patent on “Surgically Implanted Micro-platforms and Microsystems in Arthropods and Methods Based Thereon,” Bozkurt has expanded on not just the technology enabling biobotic hybrids like remote-controlled cockroaches, but also the conceptual applications, thinking beyond Rick’s single steerable roach to a future of networked insects forming an “internet-of-biotic-things.”

But first you have to perfect a lot of microtechnology and learn to take insect brain surgery from the lab to the assembly line. Currently, remote-controlling cockroaches involves a small backpack, with a microcontroller, radio and sensors. Beginning with a Madagascar hissing cockroach, selected for their large size and robustness, Bozkurt and fellow researchers implanted stainless steel electrodes into the antenna and ganglia. “Within two years, we were able to move cockroaches from point a to point b, through point c, very precisely.”

Stimulating the antennae mimics the primary mechanism cockroaches use to sense and circumnavigate obstacles. After external stimuli “they are hardwired to go in that direction.” Bozkurt said. “They don’t go, like, ‘Oh, I should go there.’”

The most immediate application Bozkurt envisions is using networks of biobotic insects to map out areas after natural disasters like earthquakes. Combining ultrasonic pings, inertial measurements and even the “little rocking micromotions” of a cockroach as it walks, its body shifting right-left-right-left, Bozkurt’s research will enable a networked cockroach swarm to produce an accurate picture of a space. Bozkurt analogizes this networked swarm to headlights seen from an airplane at night. “Based on that you can say, ‘there’s a highway there and it goes in this direction.’”

“With one cockroach it has to go around the entire area to map it, but if you have ten cockroaches or a hundred cockroaches you can explore a region very quickly,” Bozkurt said. “Additional capabilities are open to blue-sky imaginations.”

Still, there are obstacles ahead, particularly when it comes to what Bozkurt calls “the network aspect” and the engineering challenges in providing sufficient processing and power to scale up networks of insects. Bozkurt’s research has continued to fine-tune and perfect his cockroach hardware. His team’s most recent innovation matches soft, biological tissue with injectable liquid metal, overcoming the wear on more rigid electrode implantations and creating a more flexible connection. “This is the first time someone is using liquid metal for neurostimulation,” Bozkurt said. It turns out steering cockroaches isn’t as simple as Pickle Rick poking their brains with his tongue.

While biobotics sounds like radical and weird technology, Bozkurt sees it as a technologically enabled continuation of one of the human species’ oldest practices: domestication. Biobotic insects will expand our cooperative relationship with nature, producing in cockroaches the same utility we find in ox, horses and mules, offering human-insect interactions options other than routine extermination.

From a technological perspective, biobot insects will allow us to piggyback on nature’s innovations, applying existing biological technology to environmental obstacles that still stymie the expensive Atlas units at the DARPA Robotics Challenge. “From an engineering point of view they are really efficient and beautifully made,” Bozkurt said. “Cockroaches are our friends. One day they might save your life from under the rubble.” Just like they saved Pickle Rick.

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