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.