Xenobots: Living Robots


    Ever since the dawn of the information age, robots are perceived as metallic structures capable of doing things that humans cannot do. Science fiction played a big role in cementing this image of robots in the public’s imagination. However, this is all going to waste as the first Xenobots have been printed in a laboratory. Living robots, however, are nothing new to the scientific community. Efforts for merging biological and mechanical systems into one entity have been making rounds for some time now. It has been a long-standing goal of some researchers to create such a fusion of these systems which could benefit from the best of both worlds.

    A team of scientists have used living frog cells, taken from their embryos, and manufactured them into new life-forms. These ‘Xenobots’ have multiple functions built into them. They can be programmed to go towards a designated target, carry loads to specific places, and even heal themselves if the need arises. The researchers in the team describe them neither as a distinct living being nor a full robot. The best way to describe these things would be as an artefact, a kind of programmable organism. As the scientists have suggested, these living robots could have serious implications for the medical sciences if it can be properly harnessed.

    A xenobot.

    These Xenobots were designed on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont and then manufactured and tested at Tufts University. The biggest advantage that these Xenobots have is their ability to do things that other machines cannot do. One of the researchers suggests it can be used to seek and identify harmful compounds in the human body or to gather microplastics in oceans and even scrape out plaque from arteries.

    The team has, for the first time in human history, designed a completely biological machine from the ground up. The team utilized an evolutionary algorithm running on a supercomputer cluster to come up with thousands of possible design candidates for the Xenobot. The algorithm worked in the same manner in which evolution does.

    It constantly tried out different configurations for the cells; then, it would evaluate the design’s performance based on certain parameters such as locomotion. The designs were made by keeping in mind the physical restraints of the frog cells. When the designs were evaluated, poor performing designs were simply tossed out, whereas better performing designs were kept and refined further. This iterative process continued until there were only a few designs left. The assembly of the cells was done by hand at Tufts University.

    Microplastics are small pieces of regular plastic.

    Although these Xenobots are of a design never seen in nature, they perform their tasks very well. The different types of cells in the Xenobots can perfectly work together to accomplish tasks such as locomotion etc. The possibilities are limitless with these Xenobots. With the problem of microplastics growing day by day, researchers think that this might be one of the most effective ways of fighting such problems.

    As the Xenobots are enhanced even further, we can expect to see better performance from these tiny living robots. With such a wide scope of application, Xenobots are certainly a topic of interest for everyone.

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