In Sichuan, the world’s largest cockroach farm is at the forefront of an unlikely nexus between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Over 6 billion American roaches, nearly 28,000 per square foot, are bred annually in pitch-black humidity on this vast farm. It’s powered by an AI system that constantly monitors and adjusts conditions, such as temperature and food supply, in order to perfect growth rates and quality.
The livestock from this Creepshow colony are mostly destined to be the main ingredient in a host of TCM products, such as 50-RMB bottles of Kangfu Xinye, or “Recovery Potion,” a sweet, fish-fragranced therapeutic brew produced by Chengdu’s Good Doctor Pharmaceutical Group. The crushed cockroach concoction can help cure respiratory and gastric ailments, regrow damaged tissues, and treat burns or inflammations, at least according to national TCM studies.
But skepticism towards these natural and highly profitable miracle cures is growing, particularly among young and less credulous. Exposés on high-end TCM products like Tibetan caterpillar fungus, which boasts an apparent ability to boost both lifespan and libido, bear bile, and donkey gelatin have heightened awareness of both their lack of efficacy and the vast damage they wreak on the environment and ecosystem.
Donkey gelatin, or ejiao, a food ingredient traditionally believed to be able to “replenish blood” for women
Meanwhile, the roach farm poses a more immediate existential danger to its surroundings: Professor Zhu Chaodong, a lead scientist in insect evolution studies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post that a breach in the farm’s security would be “terrifying” and a “catastrophe” for the local environment: “Multiple lines of defense must be in place and work properly to prevent the disaster of accidental release.”
Many users meanwhile remain unaware of the potion’s sole raw ingredient, say experts, and would be revolted to learn the truth (the Chinese elixir only lists the Latin name, Periplaneta americana, on its packaging). The robot-ruled roach industry is unlikely to be squashed overnight, though: the potion is worth over 4.5 billion a year to the Chengdu farm alone. All hail our insect overlords.
“What’s Bugging You?” is from our issue, “Vital Signs”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.