A team of researchers have built what they claim to be the first living robots. Named “Xenobots” after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which they take their stem cells, the machines are less than a millimetre wide and are tiny enough to travel inside human bodies. They are able to survive weeks without food and can walk and swim. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types. The researchers scraped living stem cells from frog embryos and left them to incubate. The cells were later cut and reshaped into specific “body forms” designed by a supercomputer.
“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artefact: a living, programmable organism. These are novel living machines,” research co-lead Joshua Bongard, a robotics expert at the University of Vermont, said in a statement. The robots were designed by a supercomputer running an “evolutionary algorithm” that tested thousands of 3D designs for rudimentary life forms, inside a simulation. The scientists built a handful of the designs to fulfil a basic task inside the simulation, with the help of tweezers and cauterizing tools.
The study was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use. The “Xenobots” could be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, carry medicine inside human bodies, or even travel into arteries. They can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks thus making them suitable for internal drug delivery. In addition, Xenobots have self-healing capabilities; when the scientists sliced into one robot, it healed itself and kept moving.
The Xenobots could also help researchers learn more about cell biology. It will lead to future advancement in human health and longevity. As biological machines, Xenobots are very environmentally friendly and safe for human health. The supercomputer, a very powerful piece of artificial intelligence, plays a big role in building these robots. Also, it’s “unlikely” that the AI could have evil intentions. “At the moment though, it is difficult to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could,” said the researchers’ website.