Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Scientists Combine AI With Biology to Create Xenobots, the World's First 'Living Robots'

Science

By Simon Coghlan and Kobi Leins

A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world's first "living robots."


This week, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their recipe for making a new lifeform called xenobots from stem cells. The term "xeno" comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) used to make them.

One of the researchers described the creation as "neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal," but a "new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism."

Xenobots are less than 1mm long and made of 500-1000 living cells. They have various simple shapes, including some with squat "legs." They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects. Using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.

While these "reconfigurable biomachines" could vastly improve human, animal and environmental health, they raise legal and ethical concerns.

Strange New 'Creature'

To make xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform certain tasks.

The computer was programmed with an AI "evolutionary algorithm" to predict which organisms would likely display useful tasks, such as moving towards a target.

After the selection of the most promising designs, the scientists attempted to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells, which were manually joined using microsurgery tools. The heart cells in these bespoke assemblies contract and relax, giving the organisms motion.

The creation of xenobots is groundbreaking.

Despite being described as "programmable living robots," they are actually completely organic and made of living tissue. The term "robot" has been used because xenobots can be configured into different forms and shapes, and "programmed" to target certain objects – which they then unwittingly seek.

They can also repair themselves after being damaged.

Possible Applications

Xenobots may have great value.

Some speculate they could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting microplastics.

Similarly, they may be used to enter confined or dangerous areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials.

Xenobots designed with carefully shaped "pouches" might be able to carry drugs into human bodies.

Future versions may be built from a patient's own cells to repair tissue or target cancers. Being biodegradable, xenobots would have an edge on technologies made of plastic or metal.

Further development of biological "robots" could accelerate our understanding of living and robotic systems. Life is incredibly complex, so manipulating living things could reveal some of life's mysteries — and improve our use of AI.

Legal and Ethical Questions

Conversely, xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way they could help target cancers, they could also be used to hijack life functions for malevolent purposes.

Some argue artificially making living things is unnatural, hubristic or involves "playing God."

A more compelling concern is that of unintended or malicious use, as we have seen with technologies in fields including nuclear physics, chemistry, biology and AI.

For instance, xenobots might be used for hostile biological purposes prohibited under international law.

More advanced future xenobots, especially ones that live longer and reproduce, could potentially "malfunction" and go rogue, and out-compete other species.

For complex tasks, xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, possibly resulting in their sentience. A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions. Last year, the revival of a disembodied pig brain elicited concerns about different species' suffering.

Managing Risks

The xenobot's creators have rightly acknowledged the need for discussion around the ethics of their creation.

The 2018 scandal over using CRISPR (which allows the introduction of genes into an organism) may provide an instructive lesson here. While the experiment's goal was to reduce the susceptibility of twin baby girls to HIV-AIDS, associated risks caused ethical dismay. The scientist in question is in prison.

When CRISPR became widely available, some experts called for a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Others argued the benefits outweighed the risks.

While each new technology should be considered impartially and based on its merits, giving life to xenobots raises certain significant questions:

  1. Should xenobots have biological kill-switches in case they go rogue?
  2. Who should decide who can access and control them?
  3. What if "homemade" xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until regulatory frameworks are established? How much regulation is required?

Lessons learned in the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks, while reaping the possible benefits.

Long Road Here, Long Road Ahead

The creation of xenobots had various biological and robotic precedents. Genetic engineering has created genetically modified mice that become fluorescent in UV light.

Designer microbes can produce drugs and food ingredients that may eventually replace animal agriculture.

In 2012, scientists created an artificial jellyfish called a "medusoid" from rat cells.

Robotics is also flourishing.

Nanobots can monitor people's blood sugar levels and may eventually be able to clear clogged arteries.

Robots can incorporate living matter, which we witnessed when engineers and biologists created a sting-ray robot powered by light-activated cells.

In the coming years, we are sure to see more creations like xenobots that evoke both wonder and due concern. And when we do, it is important we remain both open-minded and critical.

Simon Coghlan is a senior research fellow in digital ethics at the School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne.
Kobi Leins is a senior research fellow in digital ethics at the University of Melbourne.

Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Coronavirus-sniffing dogs Miina and Kössi (R) are seen in Vantaa, Finland on September 2, 2020. Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva / AFP/ Getty Images

By Teri Schultz

Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.

Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Rashtrapati Bhavan engulfed in smog, at Rajpath, on Oct. 12, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.

Read More Show Less

Trending

New research finds that dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a suite of compounds that impact our health. Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

By Hannah Seo

If you've been considering throwing out that old couch, now might be a good time. Dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a suite of compounds that impact our health, according to new research.

Read More Show Less

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
Marine scientists who study seagrasses have published a study describing how to reintroduce eelgrass into Virginia coastal bays. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery

A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch