The first living robots, known as xenobots, were constructed by U.S. scientists who claim that they can now reproduce in a way that plants and animals cannot. Xenobots are made from the stem cells of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), from which they get their name. They’re only a millimeter wide. After research revealed that they could move, collaborate in groups, and self-heal, the small blobs were initially revealed in 2020.
Scientists from the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard University‘s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, announced that they have uncovered a completely new kind of biological reproduction that is unlike any animal or plant currently known to science. The biggest question that needed answering was, is it a robot or an organism?
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can differentiate into a variety of cell types. The xenobots were created by scraping living stem cells from frog embryos and incubating them. There is no genetic tinkering involved.
Josh Bongard, a computer science professor and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, and the study’s lead author shared: “Most people think of robots as being made of metals and ceramics, but it’s not so much what a robot is made of as what it does. It’s a robot in one sense, but it’s also a plainly living thing formed from genetically unaltered frog cells.”
The researchers then used artificial intelligence to examine billions of body types in order to make the xenobots more effective at this type of replication. The supercomputer generated a C-shape that resembled Pac-Man. They discovered it could identify small stem cells in a laboratory dish, gather hundreds of them inside its mouth, and the bundle of cells grew into more xenobots a few days later.
“These computers were not programmed in the way we normally think of programming code by the AI. It moulded and shaped itself into the Pac-Man shape ,”according to Bongard. “In essence, the program is the shape. The xenobots’ behavior is influenced by the form, amplifying this really remarkable process,” he continued.
The xenobots are relatively early technology, similar to a computer from the 1940s, and have no practical applications yet. While the possibility of self-replicating biotechnology may raise concerns, the researchers claim that the living machines are completely controlled in a lab and can be quickly extinguished because they are biodegradable and supervised by ethics experts.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that controls the development of technology for military application, contributed to the research.
In other robotic news, Elon Musk is unleashing humanoid Tesla bots.
Photo via Engineering and Technology