Thus far, cockroaches have existed primarily to repulse squeamish humans when they scuttle out from under the world's old floorboards. They comfortably edge mosquitos out to earn the mantle of the world's most reviled insect; when the rising tides and mushroom clouds finally chase us into oblivion, the cockroaches, it's often said, will inherit the earth.
But the future of cockroaches is nigh, and they won't just be fodder for post-apocalyptic nightmares and the bottom of our shoes much longer. Around the globe, we're harvesting cockroaches for nutrition, growing them on farms, and turning them into cyborgs. The future, in other words, is going to be even more full of cockroaches than it is today.
We start, as we do with most things when we're discussing the near future, with China. That's where cockroach farming is a booming business, and where the biggest operation raises 10 million roaches at once. A recent LA Times investigation into the disgusting new sector found that China was home to 100 such roach farms, and more are popping up every week.
The farms sell their wriggling wares to cosmetic companies and purveyors of traditional medicine; it's super-cheap protein. Most often, the bugs are mashed into a protein-rich powder before they're shipped off. The business is so successful that the price of roaches has skyrocketed—since 2010, prices have risen from $2 per pound to $20. Five pharmaceutical giants are buying up the bulk of the roaches, and driving the price spike; roach farming is on the brink of becoming big business.
The farms are becoming so profitable that they're looking to expand into other markets. The Times notes that "farmers are hoping to boost demand by promoting cockroaches in fish and animal feed and as a delicacy for humans."
People already eat dried cockroaches in many parts of the world—I remember visiting the street markets in Bangkok and watching giant bags of them changing hands, and locals chomping on them like chips. The UN, in fact, has recently been advocating that we all start eating more insects—they're rich in protein and require few inputs to grow. They're sustainable. We all just need to suck it up and get over the fact that cockroaches are probably the most hideous-looking creature ever to evolve and chow down.
Besides becoming a contender for the writhing food source of tomorrow, cockroaches are getting hacked for a host of other applications too. RoboRoach, the build-your-own-cockroach cyborg kit, made for a popular news item not long ago, as it demonstrated how easy it is to hardwire roaches to do our bidding. The tech lets you control roaches from your smartphone.
The fact that the technology was simple enough to go for $99 on a Kickstarter project raised some eyebrows, and got us thinking about other robot roach-centric applications. Now, researchers are thinking that cyborg cockroaches would make for good disaster scene mappers—the remote-controlled roaches could wriggle through the rubble after an earthquake, say, and collect data of the scene before rescue workers could get there.
Roaches are also proving to be important sources of information for robotics studies—because roaches balance without using their brains, roboticists are turning to the insect to learn how to program robots to do the same.
Meanwhile, Harvard scientists are building bona fide robot cockroaches. As Michael Graham Richards notes, these tiny guys could one day be used to gather data about ecosystems and test for pollution.
For an insect that's inspired so much hate, terror, and revulsion in all of us, we seem pretty intent on wiring the things for the future. Hate to say it folks, the world of tomorrow is going to be brimming with roaches.