Thursday, July 30, 2020

Xenobots: The first ever ‘living’ robots

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Charvi Trivedi

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Xenobots: The first ever ‘living’ robots


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 30, 2020


A xenobot in simulation and reality | Source: Sam Kriegman via Computer-Designed Organisms

Creating robots using artificial intelligence has become quite normal in this century. But a robot built with an amalgamation of artificial intelligence and biology is quite enthralling. Researchers from University of Vermont and Tufts University collaborated to conceive a living robot called ‘Xenobot’.

This astounding, millimeter-wide chunk of technology is considered to be ‘living’ as it is created by stem cells from the embryo of Xenopus laevis, an African frog species. These stem cells were selected in such a way that they grew out to be heart and skin cells.

Prior to this, computer scientists at the University of Vermont ran an evolutionary algorithm, which imitates natural selection, on their supercomputer, which yielded the most suitable structures of the robot. After selecting the best designs, biologists at the Tufts University moulded the skin and heart cells into the forms which closely resembled the outputs of the algorithm, through microsurgery.

The resulting biological bodies looked like tiny aliens. "They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism" said Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, who was involved in the research. Detailed results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) research paper on January 13, 2020.

Newly created xenobots were found to swim in any liquid medium for at least 10 days (or more if put in a nutrient-rich environment) without being fed with any nourishment, since the cells have a reserve of embryonic energy.

Another incredible facet of this technology is that it can revamp any of its parts efficiently upon damage. While technological pieces made out of plastic and metal might cause a lot of pollution after they are disposed of, xenobots are completely biodegradable, causing no harm to the environment. "These xenobots are fully biodegradable, when they're done with their job after seven days, they're just dead skin cells" said Bongard.

One might wonder how these miniscule cell blotches are helpful to us. Well, Xenobots may be very small in size but they can achieve feats which almost no huge, metal-made robot can.

These living robots will be useful in certain fields like medicine wherein they could be utilized to clear plague from our arteries. They can also be modelled with pouches which enables them to carry certain substances. This property can be used for delivering drugs in specific parts of our bodies. Xenobots can also be a boon in the field of cancer biology as they can help reprogramming tumors into normal cells.

Additionally, these tiny biological bodies can be oceans’ best friends. With contaminants like radioactive chemicals, plastics and microplastics creating havoc in the marine world, an immediate need to clean up our water bodies arises. Many xenobots were observed to be moving in circles (an attribute of the beating heart cells), which resembled a ‘clean-up’ motion. Hence, these tiny robots can be a perfect tool to eradicate microplastics from the oceans as well as eliminating nuclear wastes.

Although this technology may be promising, certain ethical questions arise with every technological development, especially those involving biological manipulations. If programmed in a certain way, xenobots can also take over natural biological functions (maybe nerve cells to hamper brain function) and this can be used for nasty purposes.

Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts said, “That fear is not unreasonable. When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences”. Levin and Bongard are extensively working towards understanding how complex systems work. "There's all of this innate creativity in life. We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms" said UVM's Josh Bongard.

Like any new disruptive technological innovation, the Xenobots also have the potential to prove boon or bane for the humankind. Let's hope it turns out more boon than bane.

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January 18, 2021 2:21 PM

The Toxicity in Video Games and Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077, the most awaited video game was released on consoles and PC on 10th of December, 2020. The game went under 10 years of build-up and had kept gamers waiting for over 8 years. Cyberpunk 2077 is inspired by a cult-favourite tabletop roleplaying game. The video game was designed by well-known Polish studio, CD Projekt Red. Cyberpunk was the studio’s first big console game since The Witcher 3: Wild hunt which was an extraordinarily triumphant game that won numerous awards after its launch in 2015.

The popular video game, when released, faced backlash from the gaming community and non-gamers for several reasons. To many observers and gamers, Cyberpunk 2077 even proved to be an absolute failure. Several gamers called out the game developers for the promotion of sexiest ideologies and transphobia. However, the reviews weren’t well received by the fans. Cyberpunk 2077 fans responded with unacceptable abuses, harrasing and hateful messages and even rape and death threats.

Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 released ample previews, trailers, motion pictures and marketing material. Aside from this, the appearence of popular Canadian actor, Keanu Reeves as a character in the game carved the expectations of gamers and promised a sexy and kinky world of futuristic and revolutionary action. CD Projekt Red, one of Europe’s most successful video game company announced Cyberpunk 2077 project in 2012 and released the first trailer in 2013

The game is set in an alternate timeline in the city of California. The streets in the game are owned by tyrannical corporations. Everyone in the game modifies their body with illegal technology. Much of the state in the video game setting is said to be suffering from the impacts of a major nuclear attack which happened years ago. Every player gets to be a cyber-enhanced human who has to fight against physical and psychological threats to their survival. The game character of Keanu Reeves comes in as your sidekick.

In 2018, the developers insisted and had assured the gamers that Cyberpunk 2077 would not include in game purchases. CD Projekt Red did not want to lock any content behind a paywall. The studio was also insistent that the game would come out only when it was completely “ready”. They announced that the release would take place in April 2020 but it was delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other quality problems that the game was facing. When it was finally released in December 2020, gamers expected their experience of the game to be “worth the wait”. However, the video game wasn’t well revived by all. In spite of several months of work that went into making and developing the game, the game was launched with several technical issues. Players on both PC and consoles were having terrible experiences. As a result of multiple glitches and technical problems, the characters’ faces were obscured and the game would reset randomly. Some of the environments or areas of the game map was unappealing. The game even caused consoles to crash repeatedly and sometimes sacrificed players’ progress. One glitch led to characters’ breasts and penises being exposed. The characters’ genitals would poke out of their clothes. CD Projeckt Red offered refunds to players who were disappointed with the product. In fact, they updated a self-review discouraging gamers from playing the game on console until the game was fixed and improved.

Cyberpunk 2077 was roundly criticized by reviewers, game designers, industry insiders and other gamers across the gaming community. The wait and hype for the game had already created a fanbase which turned toxic by harassing reviewers who criticised the game.

There is another reason why the game wasn’t well received. Cyberpunk 2077 transphobia was apparent in the game contradicting the fact that the developers had claimed that the game was ahead of its time. The game has an incredibly detailed character creation menu. The players can control several aspects of their character’s appearance including the shapes and size of the genitals. The game even allows players to decline the option of including genitals to their characters. However, this isn’t the problem and is in fact appreciable. The idea of not determining gender by the character’s genitals in fact made many trans players happy. But this soon turned into disbelief and disappointment. The gamers realised that the game actually assigned the gender to the characters not based on their genitals but rather by the voice. Characters with higher-pitched voices were identified as females and characters with deep-voiced characters were assigned male pronouns. This purports the toxic idea that people’s gender can be determined by certain traits. A non-sexist video game would determine the gender of a player’s character based on an independent choice made by players themselves. This is uninfluenced by other physical traits or qualities.

Several reviewers called out Cyberpunk 2077 for promoting sexist ideologies. Unfortunately, toxic fans harassed the reviewers. “You just KNOW when you're going to get harassed. If the game with all the hype has anything wrong with it, and you're honest about that, or even just want to provide any context outside of ‘it's fun’, you're going to get harassed. It's a given.” These were precisely what Susan Arendt, a podcast host quoted. She even second guessed herself whether sharing her true opinions was worth the hateful, threatening and harassing messages that she received.

Controversial Tweet by Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter Handle

In the early days of arcade, gaming was a family activity. The popular male dominance and stereotype that only boys or men are good at video games were perpetuated in the past three decades. We observe this change due to sexualisation of video games. Today, most video games aren’t family friendly as they include explicit and sexual content. This, in fact, is a marketing tactic used by developers to target the male population. In 2018, a Cyberpunk 2077 fan who was awaiting the game at that point of time tweeted that the user wanted to see more from the “guys” at CDPR. In response to this tweet, CD Projekt Red tweeted, “Did you just assume their gender?!”. On the look of it, the tweet seems innocent but it is a joke at the expense of the trans community. After receiving backlash to the tweet, CDPR took it down and issued an apology staying sorry to “all those offended”. The apology seems like another targeted mockery and CDPR did no right by not taking responsibility for its actions.

Not only is Cyberpunk2077 transphobic and sexist, it is non user friendly as well. The game has several epilepsy triggers without any warnings about it. There are several instances and situations in the game where the effects and the graphics are brighter, louder and flashing. This is a general trigger for seizures. Liana Rupert, a player of Cyberpunk 2077 suffered a major seizure and at several moments felt that she was close to another one. After bringing this to the notice of CD Projekt Red, the company agreed to add trigger warnings wherever necessary.  

The gaming industry has definitely taken a few steps forward in terms of inclusivity of all genders but has also taken a few steps backward. While all genders are welcome, they still face harassment and judgement for simply existing in the community and need a lot more improvement.

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