The team builds the first living robots | Human world
Scientists at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Tufts University in Massachusetts said on January 13, 2020 that they have now assembled living cells into whole new life forms. They call them living robots, or xenobots for the frog species cells from which the little robots have emerged. Scientists describe them as tiny blobs, less than a millimeter in size (one millimeter equals about 1 / 25th of an inch, so those little drops are smaller than that). The blobs contain between 500 and 1000 cells. They can heal themselves after being cut. The blobs were able to roam a petri dish, self-organize, and even carry minute-long payloads. Perhaps eventually, they can transport a drug to a specific location in the human body, scrape plaque from arteries, search for radioactive contamination, or collect plastic pollution in Earth’s oceans.
And, yes, scientists recognize possible ethical issues. More on that below.
Joshua bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research, said in a statement:
They are new living machines. It is neither a traditional robot nor a known animal species. It is a new class of artifacts: a living and programmable organism …
You look at the cells that we’ve built our xenobots with, and genomically they’re frogs. It’s 100% frog DNA – but they’re not frogs. Then you ask, well, what are these cells capable of building?
The results of the new research were published January 13 to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In their published article, these scientists wrote:
Most technologies are made from steel, concrete, chemicals and plastics, which degrade over time and can produce harmful side effects on the environment and health. It would therefore be useful to build technologies using self-renewable and biocompatible materials, the ideal candidates of which are themselves living systems. So, here we present a method that designs fully biological machines from scratch: Computers automatically design new machines in simulation, and the best designs are then built by combining different biological tissues. This suggests that others may use this approach to design a variety of living machines to safely deliver drugs inside the human body, help clean up the environment, or further expand our understanding of the various forms and forms. functions that life can adopt.
The new creatures were designed on a supercomputer at UVM, then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University. The scientists’ statement described their process this way:
With months of processing time on the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at UVM’s Vermont Advanced Computing Core, the team – including lead author and UVM PhD student Sam Kriegman [@Kriegmerica on Twitter] – used an evolutionary algorithm to create thousands of candidate models for new life forms. Attempting to perform a task assigned by scientists – like locomotion in one direction – the computer over and over again gathered a few hundred simulated cells into a myriad of body shapes and forms. As the programs unfolded – guided by basic rules on the biophysics of what unique frog skin and heart cells can do – the most successful simulated organisms were conserved and refined, while the most successful simulated organisms were preserved and refined. failed designs were rejected. After 100 independent runs of the algorithm, the most promising designs were selected for testing.
Then the Tufts team, led by Michael levin and with the key work of the micro-surgeon Douglas blackiston – transferred on in-silico designs in life. First, they collected stem cells, harvested from embryos of African frogs, the species Xenopus laevis [African clawed frogs; hence the name “xenobots.”]
These were separated into single cells and left to incubate. Then, using tiny tweezers and an even smaller electrode, the cells were cut and joined under a microscope in a close approximation of the designs specified by the computer.
Assembled in bodily shapes never before seen in nature, the cells began to work together. Skin cells formed a more passive architecture, while the once random contractions of heart muscle cells were implemented to create orderly forward movement guided by the computer design, and aided by models of the skin. ‘spontaneous self-organization – allowing robots to move around on their own.
These reconfigurable organisms have been shown to be able to move coherently – and explore their aqueous environment for days or weeks, fueled by embryonic energy stores. Turned over, however, they failed, like beetles turned on their backs.
Subsequent tests showed that groups of xenobots moved in circles, pushing the pellets into a central location – spontaneously and collectively. Others were built with a hole in the center to reduce drag. In simulated versions of these, scientists were able to reuse this hole as a pocket to successfully carry an object.
I am delighted to finally tell the world about computer-designed organisms, also called “xenobots”, also called “living robots” or “reconfigurable organisms” …https://t.co/FQ5v23nKxY
You’ve heard of sim2real – it’s sim2life. pic.twitter.com/w3dUB0nj5r
– Sam Kriegman (@Kriegmerica) January 13, 2020
Scientists said they saw this work as part of a bigger picture. And they recognized that some may fear the implications of rapid technological change and complex biological manipulations. Levin commented:
This fear is not unreasonable. When we start playing with complex systems that we don’t understand, we are going to have unintended consequences.
However, he said:
If humanity is to survive in the future, we need to better understand how complex properties, one way or another, emerge from simple rules.
He said that much of the science focuses on:
… Check the low level rules. We also need to understand the high level rules.
I think that it is an absolute necessity for the company in the future to better master the systems, the result of which is very complex. A first step in doing this is to explore: how do living systems decide what global behavior should be, and how to manipulate the parts to achieve the behaviors we want?
In other words, he said:
… This study is a direct contribution to understanding what people fear, which are unintended consequences.
There is all this innate creativity in life. We want to understand this more deeply – and how we can orient and push it into new forms.
Conclusion: Scientists declared in early January 2020 that they had created the first living robots, or “xenobots”, assembled from frog cells. Their creators promise breakthroughs ranging from drug delivery to cleaning up toxic waste.