Knight to cockroach

The insect of the future is the cyborg insect. Scientists in the USA, China and probably elsewhere have been experimenting, for several years now, with the remote control of insects. At a university in Texas, with financial support of the military authorities, a system has been recently tested to control specimens of the cockroach (Blaberus discoidalis) in such a way that it can be directed to a specified target. To achieve this the tough little animal is equipped with a chip and a battery, while electrodes are planted in its minute brain. They ensure that the animal itself loses control over the movement of its limbs. It can be directed to any place within its reach that its human operator selects for it. What weighty task it is going to perform there is optional. It could ‘bug’ a place, or carry a tiny camera, manifesting itself as the perfect spy. Or, perhaps, it could even infest the enemy’s camp with some incapacitating disease. Let’s not forget it could also bring us useful information from spots where humans normally cannot go.

After this successful takeover of the cockroach, the bee may follow, or the drone, as well as the common fly. Even a poetical creature as the butterfly is under consideration to be digitally enslaved. It is attractive, of course, to speculate on all the uses and misuses of hijacked insects one can come up with. But what about the ethics of this whole endeavour? What would be our moral justification for using our finest technological skills to turn insects into robots? The utilitarian argument will not suffice, since the same objectives may probably be reached by miniaturized mechanical drones. Neither can referring to habit be of much help: certainly, we have been harnessing horses to coaches for many ages, but that is not the same thing. The Texan cyborg cockroach is not simply a matter of using the strength, speed or skill of an animal, out of necessity, by an act of ‘harnessing’ or training it. What the cockroach experiment comes down to is the zombification of living creatures. If I can train a dolphin to speedily deliver my message, there is no evil in that. But if I kill that dolphin’s ability to move by itself in planting a device in its brain that enables me to direct it to deliver that very same message, I will turn it into a zombie.

As far as I can see, the zombification of living creatures – whether they crawl, swim, fly or gallop – is without justification from the ethical point of view. If furthermore we would use this technique of implanting remote controls in animals to have them fight our wars for us, this would totally estrange us from the former ideal of the honourable fight. Obviously we no longer want to behave as knights. Nevertheless, we do nowadays quite often refer to the principle of the ‘level playing field’. That leaves room for some hope that chivalry as a principle of ethics has not yet been forgotten completely.