Science is continuously moving forward, always striving to achieve the seemingly unachievable. In the 21st century nothing seems impossible. Technology is advancing at a rapid speed and with it breakthrough inventions are created. Keeping this in mind, the first living robots are now reality. Scientists from the University of Vermont and biophysicists at Tufts University in the US have used frog cells to successfully bring to life “xenobots”. This groundbreaking invention holds great potential for science, but also some possible problems. The future is now closer than ever – but only time will tell whether it will look like an apocalyptic sci-fi movie or a better world than that today. This article will delve into the creation of xenobots, their applications, likely disadvantages, and predictions for their development.
The creation of xenobots – the first living robots
Following the instructions of a supercomputer, scientists have created the first ever living robots. To reach this historic moment for science, teams from the University of Vermont and Tufts University used living heart and skin cells from frogs to create a design. Then, using that design they collected cells from frog embryos and incubated mature cells from them. Micro surgeons cut and joined them together using the design of the supercomputer. This resulted in the creation of xenobots – bunches of frog cells with the cardiac cells serving the function of a motor to make them mobile. The xenobots are named after the African clawed frogs “Xenopus laevis” from which the cells are taken.
The living robots are less than 1mm in size. The way they are designed is quite unique – the supercomputer has created “an evolutionary algorithm”, which essentially comes up with random 3D combinations of 500 to 1,000 frog skin and heart cells. The team then tests each configuration digitally to determine the xenobots’ speed, agility and longevity. Using the results, more designs are made from the best xenobots. When initially conducting the experiment, the scientists waited for the supercomputer to generate one hundred designs before choosing which ones to then further develop. The evolutionary algorithm means that the strongest xenobots are reproduced in the system, while the weakest are rooted out.
Xenobots in detail
The heart cells function as a motor for the xenobots – they fuel them and keep them moving. The robots move at a relatively low but sufficient speed. They have some remarkable features. The xenobots are able to completely heal themselves. The scientists carried out an experiment where they sliced a xenobot almost in half and it fully healed itself. They are strong enough not only to move on their own, but also transport other microscopic objects. Biologists tested the maximum muscle power of the robots’ tissues and discovered that they are able to push things. They are also able to form groups with other xenobots and work collaboratively. In a report the scientists described how when placed in dishes of water, some of the xenobots moved in straight lines or circles, while others teamed up. Another advantage that they possess is that they are completely biodegradable. Given the current challenges the environment is facing, xenobots could be a breakthrough invention.
Xenobots were tested in aquatic environments, similar to the African clawed frogs’ natural habitat, because they are made entirely out of their DNA. The team of scientists discovered that the live robots have enough “fuel” to last around seven to ten days, after which they naturally biodegrade. However, if their environment is enriched with nutrients, they could potentially survive up to two weeks.
The role of xenobots
Scientists are still uncertain about the role xenobots can have in the world. They could be of huge importance in medicine, biotechnology or environmental science and serve a variety of purposes. However, Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, hinted that this is just the beginning. He stated that the xenobots are very small and the goal is to make them to scale. This suggests developing xenobots from mammalian cells from blood vessels, nervous systems and sensory organs, which would mean that they would be able to survive in dry environments.
Ethical issues: can science create life?
Naturally, the news of the xenobots has created a wave of backlash. The most common concern is that of robots developing a mind of their own and taking over. Like an image taken out of a dystopian movie, many are worried that the xenobots might extend their purpose if the scientists do not fully understand how they function. Sam Kriegman, a PhD student from the team at the University of Vermont, has ruled out such a possibility by saying that simply looking at how the xenobots move is enough evidence to prove that they cannot take over. Essentially, the xenobots do not have a nervous system, so there is no way in which they can be intelligent. What is interesting is that they are not remote controlled, but rather pre-programmed. They are able to behave autonomously. However, their simple design excludes the possibility of mental capacity.
The more important question is what will happen if the xenobots are indeed scaled up and cells from mammalian nervous systems are used. The issue would be if the neural tissue allows the xenobots to develop some form of mental life. If they have the ability to experience pain, for example, conducting experiments with them would be considered unethical. Sam Kriegman has acknowledged the ethical implications and has stated that involving the public is the way forward. According to him, the course of action should be a societal decision resulting from a productive discussion.
Xenobots possibly evolving into bigger living inventions also opens up the possibility of scientists taking on more than they can handle. If they do not fully understand the way their creations function, could they backfire? The ultimate question is whether it is achievable for science to give birth to living and functioning organisms. So far, xenobots have proven that to some extent it is. Although they are not intelligent creatures, they are living organisms that are created artificially. It is a matter of personal perception whether xenobots should be considered living creatures or machines. The invention of the living robots, however, could lead to even bigger creations, so the future of science might hold more life forms.
The course of action to be taken now depends on the priorities of scientists. While the ultimate aim is to understand “the software of life” and how birth defects, cancer and other diseases can be solved, according to Michael Levin, the first goal is to completely understand the way xenobots function.
Gaining perspective: From small details to the full picture
In order to rule out unwanted consequences such as robots taking over, the team of scientists working on xenobots have made it their priority to meticulously analyze their invention. Because the researchers from the University of Vermont and the biophysicists at Tufts University are still unsure about what exactly the xenobots could be used for, they are working on making that clear. At the moment the team is working on a cellular level. They want to understand how different cells communicate with each other. The scientists specifically chose stem cells from frog embryos and left them to incubate because they have the ability to develop into different cell types. They were able to reshape the incubated cells into specific “body forms” that the supercomputer designed. This resulted in the creation of “entirely new life forms” – hybrids between robots and living organisms.
Because xenobots are far from traditional robots, the possibilities of their benefits are endless. Joshua Bongard, one of the lead researchers at the University of Vermont, has stated that they are essentially “novel living machines” – neither traditional robots nor animals. They are living, programmable organisms, which makes them completely unique. Their design seems to have been deliberate and completely thought out. Because xenobots, unlike robots made out of plastic or metal, xenobots are completely biodegradable, this enables them to achieve things traditional robots would not be able to, according to Bongard.
As far as their behavior goes, xenobots seem to be pretty simple and predictable. Because they have no nervous system, they are unable to develop intelligence. They can survive only in an aquatic environment and are able to move on their own, or carry another object. They can either move alone or group up with other xenobots – a quality which makes them extremely valuable.
Taking all of the xenobots’ qualities and abilities into account, scientists are continuing to study and develop them. Their role is still uncertain, but there are a number of scenarios which are yet to be explored. If the xenobots’ development goes to plan, they could potentially be significant for society. The scientists have high hopes and a variety of tasks for them.
What the invention of xenobots means
The invention of xenobots is considered to be a true breakthrough moment in science. The first living robots hold endless potential for future developments and inventions in the fields of environmental protection, medicine and many more.
How xenobots can be used to fight pollution
One of the tiny robots’ unique features is their complete biodegradability. It is a fact that the environment is extremely polluted, so scientists are looking for solutions. That is exactly what the xenobots might be – a savior for the environment. The teams from the University of Vermont and Tufts University suggest that the less-than-millimeter inventions could be used to clean up microplastics in the ocean. Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic commonly found in bodies of water. Essentially, they are free-floating pollutants with chemical impact, because heavy metals can adhere to them. It has been proven that microplastics pose a threat not only to marine life, but also to humans – they can be consumed through fish and seafood, or by drinking water. The xenobots, however, would be able to pick them up and help reduce them significantly.
Another role the xenobots could have is in cleaning polluted sites, especially from toxic materials and substances. Toxic waste is extremely dangerous and can cause serious harm to animals and people. If not dealt with properly, it could contaminate the soil and water. Xenobots’ ability to group up would be very handy in such situations. They could be used to digest it and therefore significantly reduce the risk of contamination and environmental pollution.
Potential uses of xenobots in medicine and healthcare
Scientists could be able to find plenty of uses of xenobots in medicine as well. One example that they have given is their potential ability to unclog human arteries. Because of their microscopic size, they could be inserted into the blood vessels to scoop up plaque from the inside. This would be a much faster and more efficient method than those used currently. Their biodegradability would be one of the selling points.
Another way in which the soft-bodied bots could be useful in healthcare is by transporting medicine inside the human body. Although people are skeptical towards the idea of robots being injected inside their bodies and moving around, there could be many benefits.
Bigger goals for the future
It seems like xenobots are part of a plan on a larger scale. Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, a robotics engineer from Yale University, has said that the team’s success in the use of living cells to achieve simulated designs and behaviors is impressive and shows promise for the future. According to her, we could be able to witness the generation of more resilient and intelligent bio-compatible and soft robots.
The team from the University of Vermont and Tufts University, however, is still focused on primary science. Their current goal is to gain understanding about how cells work and communicate with each other through the inspection of xenobots. Although it is clear that they use electricity and chemical signals to coordinate, it is still uncertain what they are saying and how they decide what shapes to form – and that is what the team aims to find out. Michael Levin says that it is important from a biological point of view to understand how individual cells cooperate and how they decide what bodies to build. In his opinion, that is going to lay the foundation for the future of biological sciences and genetic engineering especially.
If cellular understanding really is gained, a lot of potential for genetic engineering could be unfolded. Levin has hinted that, for example, birth defects, cancer and age-related diseases could be solved if scientists ultimately learn how to make biological structures, and thus have control over growth and form. Having said that, this concept still sounds too far-fetched and futuristic. It would take decades before genetic modifications on humans are even considered.
So, at the moment the main focus is on gaining complete physical control over the cells of the xenobots. The goal is to reach automation, but there is still a lot of manual work that has to be done first. 3D printing of the living robots is on the cards for the future, but it is still simply a concept.
It is a fact, though, that even on a small scale, xenobots are a groundbreaking invention for science. They are the first of many steps towards understanding cellular function and behavior, because they hold important information about cell formation. What the future holds depends entirely on the extent to which that information will be obtained, processed and used. For now, we can hold on to the promise of huge potential and better understanding of cells, without fear of dystopian robots taking over, but rather with hope of artificial intelligence helping humanity advance further.