In 2020 nobody is astonished by robots any more. Most of us have seen one or have consumed a product that has passed through the “hands” of a robot at one stage of its life cycle. We know what these metal-clad efficient machines can do to improve our life.
Right when we think “Okay, This is it!”, our amazing scientists keep coming up with incredible breakthroughs. But what they have achieved today might be era-defining – The world’s first-ever Living Robot.
Yes! The word “living” is not misused. This robot is not your ordinary inorganic machine. Team of researchers from Vermont University (UVM) and Tufts University have created the world’s first living, self-healing robots using stem cells from frogs. The tiny organic machine is made up of stem cells from frog embryos and is programmable to do whatever work we want them to do.
These tiny bots called “Xenobots” presents a plethora of possible applications. They are only 25th of an inch wide (1mm) in size and can be programmed to performs tasks such as direct medicine delivery in points inside the body, cleaning microplastics in the ocean or removing deposits from arteries.
The research team’s paper is published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”. They used the supercomputer – “Deep Green” at UVM to design this new breed of technological-artefact. After the design was ready biologists from TU assembled the design using stem cells and tested what it can do.
The technology used to create “Xenobots” is even more interesting. Joshua Bongard, the lead author of the study from UVM and doctoral student Sam Kriegman used a new revolutionary algorithm to create the being. The algorithm will simulate cell designing in different variations until an optimal design is reached to deliver the final function as defined by the researchers.
The algorithm follows the fundamental of biophysics while running the simulation. Several iterative running of the algorithm can create refined designs which can be sent for cell-based testing.
The actual “cell assembly” was performed by microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston. He used stem cells from Xenopus laevis, a species of African frogs (hence the name “Xenobots”) and edited the cells using forceps and tiny electrodes to match the computer-simulated design.
The researchers found that the Xenobots could successfully move on their own, exploring the environment and are able to push pellets around. The organic nature of the robots allows self-healing as well. The best part of the robot is that it is biodegradable, just like any other living being.
Researchers will continue working on the project to create complex versions of Xenobots with a specific application. They are suggesting that such living materials could completely change the way humans use technology.
While the potential of this work is so vast and unimaginable the researchers also admitted the possibility of unintended consequences. There is always a danger where systems become so complex that we cannot predict how it will behave.
Michael Levin, co-leader of the project and the director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University tell us that “If humanity is going to survive into the future, we need to better understand how complex properties, somehow, emerge from simple rules. This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of, which is unintended consequences.
He said that the new study is an important step towards understanding such systems. By learning more about how living systems decide how they will behave, and whether and how that might be changed, we will be able to better understand their outcomes.