World’s first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say

2nd December, 2021.      //   General Interest, Technology  // 

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The US scientists who created the first living robots say the life forms, known as xenobots, can now reproduce — and in a way not seen in plants and animals.

Formed from the stem cells of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which it takes its name, xenobots are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide. The tiny blobs were first unveiled in 2020 after experiments showed that they could move, work together in groups and self-heal.

Now the scientists that developed them at the University of Vermont, Tufts University and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering said they have discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction different from any animal or plant known to science.

“I was astounded by it,” said Michael Levin, a professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University who was co-lead author of the new research.

“Frogs have a way of reproducing that they normally use but when you … liberate (the cells) from the rest of the embryo and you give them a chance to figure out how to be in a new environment, not only do they figure out a new way to move, but they also figure out apparently a new way to reproduce.”

The C-shaped parent xenobots collect and compress loose stem cells together into piles which can mature into offspring.

The supercomputer came up with a C-shape that resembled Pac-Man, the 1980s video game. They found it was able to find tiny stem cells in a petri dish, gather hundreds of them inside its mouth, and a few days later the bundle of cells became new xenobots.

The AI didn’t program these machines in the way we usually think about writing code. It shaped and sculpted and came up with this Pac-Man shape,” Bongard said.

“The shape is, in essence, the program. The shape influences how the xenobots behave to amplify this incredibly surprising process.”

The xenobots are very early technology — think of a 1940s computer — and don’t yet have any practical applications. However, this combination of molecular biology and artificial intelligence could potentially be used in a host of tasks in the body and the environment, according to the researchers. This may include things like collecting microplastics in the oceans, inspecting root systems and regenerative medicine.

While the prospect of self-replicating biotechnology could spark concern, the researchers said that the living machines were entirely contained in a lab and easily extinguished, as they are biodegradable and regulated by ethics experts.

The research was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use.

“There are many things that are possible if we take advantage of this kind of plasticity and ability of cells to solve problems,” Bongard said.

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