Thursday, July 30, 2020

Xenobots: The first ever ‘living’ robots

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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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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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