AI + Biology = The World’s First “Living Robot”?

February 10, 2020 - 8 minutes read

Merging artificial intelligence (AI) development and biology is the stuff of science fiction. Or, at least, it used to be — a team of researchers has revealed that they’ve created the first “living robots.” And it could change how we understand AI, approach healthcare, and preserve our environment.

A Recipe for New Life?

Last month, the research team published their work on creating a new lifeform from stem cells. This new creation is known as a xenobot; its name comes from Xenopus laevis, the frog cells used to build them. When describing this new creation, one of the researchers said it wasn’t quite correct to consider a xenobot a traditional robot or any known animal species. Instead, it is a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Less than a millimeter long and composed of 500 to 1,000 living cells, xenobots come in a variety of different, albeit, simple shapes. Some even come with “legs”! These organisms are able to propel themselves in either a circular or linear direction. They can also join together and act collectively to accomplish a task such as moving a small object. And they can live up to 10 days off of their own cellular energy.

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To create xenobots, the group of scientists and roboticists from the University of Vermont and Tufts University in Boston enlisted the help of a supercomputer to rapidly test the capabilities of thousands of random designs. Programmed with an AI “evolutionary algorithm,” the supercomputer could predict which design would likely be able to accomplish useful tasks (such as moving a small object).

One they selected the most promising designs, the team tried to replicate these virtual models by combining frog skin or heart cells with microsurgery tools. By contracting and relaxing, the heart cells enable these organisms to move.

The result of this team’s work is nothing short of a breakthrough. The xenobots may be “programmable living robots,” but they’re actually completely made of living tissue, making them entirely organic. Because they can be configured into various forms and “programmed” to target certain objects, the team considers xenobots as robots. It’s worth noting that xenobots can repair themselves if they sustain any damage — something typical robots can’t accomplish yet.

Infinite Applications for this New Creation

The possibilities for xenobots seem endless. They could potentially collect microplastics and clean polluted oceans. Or they may be used to enter areas considered too dangerous for humans to search for toxic or radioactive materials. Since they’re biodegradable, xenobots already have an edge over technologies dependent on metal or plastic.

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Beyond environmental health, xenobots could also play an integral role in the development of new medical solutions and technologies. They can be designed to have “pouches” that may allow them to transport drugs into human bodies. In fact, future versions of xenobots may be constructed from a patient’s very own cells in order to target cancer cells or repair tissue.

Last but certainly not least, xenobots could help accelerate human understanding of both life and robotics. It’s no secret that life is immensely complex. By manipulating these living things, researchers may be able to elucidate some of life’s greatest mysteries — and perhaps improve how we leverage AI.

But while all these possible benefits are game-changing, xenobots do raise some valid concerns.

The Concerns and Risks of Creating Programmable Life

Just like any other tool or technology, xenobots could be used for either good or bad. For instance, instead of targeting and destroying cancer cells, xenobots could be used by malevolent parties to hijack life functions. And bad outcomes like this don’t even have to be intentional.

As we’ve seen in the past with fields like AI, chemistry, and nuclear physics, unintended consequences can be catastrophic. Future iterations of xenobots may be capable of living longer and even reproducing. But some say this could potentially lead to “malfunctions” in replication, causing them to go “rogue.”

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And while equipping xenobots with sensory and nervous systems could allow them to take on more complex tasks, skeptics say this could also result in them becoming sentient. This raises all sorts of ethical concerns. Some opponents would say this crosses the line and is akin to “playing God.”

The research team behind xenobots has acknowledged that discussion about the ethics of their creation is sorely needed. Before these programmable organisms are applied to any use case, many questions must be answered. Who decides who can access and control them? Should they be given kill-switches in the event they go rogue? Exactly how much regulation is required?

Addressing these queries will be tough. But if there’s anything to be learned from both previous mishaps and advancements in science, it’s that mitigating future risks is key to reaping the optimal amount of rewards.

Just the Beginning for This Kind of Biological Innovation?

Rapid advancement in both biology and robotics means we’ll probably see more creations like xenobots in the coming years.

Thanks to genetic engineering, we now have mice that become fluorescent in UV light. We also have designer microbes capable of producing drugs and food components that could replace typical agriculture sources.

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On the flip side, robotics is experiencing a similar flourish. Nanobots can be used to monitor human blood sugar levels and may eventually be able to clear clogged arteries. Xenobots aren’t even the first time that robotics and biology have been combined. A couple of years ago, researchers managed to create a sting-ray robot that’s energized by light-activated cells.

With all of these developments unfolding, it’s only a matter of time before the merging of biology and robotics gives us more innovations. And like xenobots, it’s important that we approach these creations both critically and open-minded.

What do you think the future holds for xenobots? What applications do you think would be best for these “codable” creatures? Do you think the cons outweigh the benefits? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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