Tech Tuesday: World’s First Living Robots Unexpectedly Reproduce

Last year, scientists Sam Kriegman, Douglas Blackiston, Michael Levin, and Josh Bongard proposed a strategy for producing self-renewing and biocompatible technologies – biological machines – via advanced computer technology.  Utilizing this methodology, the team created the world’s first living robots out of recombined frog cells.

In a 2020 research article, the team of biologists and computer engineering experts explained that advances in computational search and 3D printing now allow scientists to produce scalable methods for producing biological machines.

Advanced machine learning aids in the development of these “evolutionary design methods,” and in the team’s estimate, are useful because they can produce diverse solutions in an “agnostic” manner. Because after all, the best designs come from multiple combinations of different biological tissues. And it would seem, based on their own explanation, such designs would be easier to implement without silly human ethics getting in the way.

“[T]hey are agnostic to the kind of artifact being designed and the function it should provide: the same evolutionary algorithm can be reconfigured to design drugs, autonomous machines, metamaterials, or architecture.”

Excerpt from “A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms” PNAS 2020

Using this method, the team created the world’s first known batch of living machines – “xenobots.” Xenobots are created from the skin and heart cells of African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) which have been reconfigured into a new design by the team’s computer algorithms.

Fig. 1 – Designing and manufacturing reconfigurable organisms. On the left, a computer algorithm designs “living machines.” On the right, the design was implemented with frog cells and tested for various behaviors.

While these stem cells would never come together in nature, the team found that with manipulation they could be combined into intricate self-organizing materials which are roughly the size of a grain of sand.

“Most people think of robots as made of metals and ceramics but it’s not so much what a robot is made from but what it does, which is act on its own on behalf of people. In that way, it’s a robot, but it’s also clearly an organism made from genetically unmodified frog cell. “

Computer scientist andco-author Josh Bongard speaks to Katie Hunt for CNN.

The xenobots are capable of motion, can congregate around and transport microscopic objects, exhibit collective behavior, and are capable of reformation when cut. Now, the xenobots have been discovered to have another trick up their sleeve – reproduction.  

According to the team, the xenobots new trick is not only extraordinary, its manner of reproduction is also unique and unfound in nature. The xenobot reproduces by gathering free-floating cells and reassembling them into new self-copy clusters.

The bots’ ability to reproduce is not without its weaknesses, however. For now, it appears that only the first generation of Xenobot is capable of creating “children.” The second generation has been “too small and too weak” to replicate.

Furthermore, the Xenobots’ reproduction has occurred in the controlled conditions of a lab. Interestingly, the team explained that the best Xenobot parents come in the shape of Pac-men, as it was easiest for them to scoop material. Luckily for the team, the AI designs the creatures in this manner.   

While the ultimate use of xenobots is unknown, the team hopes that others will copy their approach to design “a variety of living machines to safely deliver drugs inside the human body, help with environmental remediation, or further broaden our understanding of the diverse forms and functions life may adopt.”

Others have expressed ethical concerns relating to biological robots, but as everyone knows, it is notoriously hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and for now, it would seem the team has no plans on stopping its Frankenstein-style experiments.

Living robots made from frog cells can replicate themselves in a dish.

Post by CJ Fisher

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s