Xenobot: The First Self-Healing and Living Robots

Katie Ramirez
January 15, 2020

The notion of having living organisms inside our body, that can possibly be programmed for malicious intent, is nerve-wracking. These emergent and geometric properties are shaped by bioelectric, biochemical, and biomechanical processes, "that run on DNA-specified hardware", Levin says, "and these processes are reconfigurable, enabling novel living forms". Bottom: The lab-grown xenobots, made from cells.

Though the usual stem cells came from frogs - the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis - these so-known as xenobots don't resemble any identified amphibians. They can walk and swim, survive for weeks without food and work together in groups.

Xenobots do not seem like conventional robots - they don't have any shiny gears or robotic arms.

Researchers in the USA have built the first ever "living robot", or xenobot, by engineering bits of frog embryo to behave like "living, programmable organisms", an advance that may lead to computer-designed "life forms" capable of delivering drugs into the human body, clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans or even scrape out plaque from human arteries. Created from frog stem cells, the xenobots are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide, and travel inside blood vessels.

Plus, these new robots can heal themselves after being cut, giving them a longer life span. They sent all this data to a team of computer scientists, who built a simulated environment for digital versions of the xenobots to play.

Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert who co-led the breakthrough, explained: "These are novel living machines". Then, the cells had been lower and reshaped into particular "physique varieties" designed by a supercomputer - types "by no means seen in nature", in line with a news release from the University of Vermont.

Neither a robot nor an animal, xenobots use living cells to create a programmable machine that could one day clean up toxic waste.

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The cells then began to work on their own - skin cells bonded to form structure, while pulsing heart muscle cells allowed the robot to move on its own.

In tests, the xenobots were able to move around their aquatic environment for days, sometimes even weeks, depending on how much energy was available in their cells, without additional nutrients being added to the environment. This hole could be exapted into a pouch for transporting objects, the team found; as they evolved the design, they incorporated the pouch and transported an object in a simulation.

"We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do", said study co-author Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University in MA.

"At the moment though it is hard to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could", said the researchers' website.

When the scientists sliced the xenobots in half, they stitched back together and kept going.

"These are very small, but ultimately the plan is to make them to scale", said Levin. "After we delivery up to debris spherical with advanced systems that we do not perceive, we will net unintended consequences". "We'd have no idea". A first step towards doing that is to explore: "how do living systems decide what an overall behavior should be and how do we manipulate the pieces to get the behaviors we want?"

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