World’s first living programmable robots. After spending decades steeped in science fiction, We would not immediately associate the words “living” and “robot,” and we doubt a lot of either. We can’t say the same about researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University, though — they announced this week that they have successfully developed tiny living “machines” of sorts.
To paraphrase researcher Joshua Bongard, these aren’t traditional robots or a known species of animal — these are something else entirely. These are living programmable organisms.
Nor a machine nor a organs
The possibilities for custom living machines designed for a variety of purposes, from targeted drug delivery to environmental remediation, are pretty mind-blowing.
The new creatures were designed on a supercomputer at UVM—and then assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University. “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” says co-leader Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, “like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque.”
Xenobots Tinny robots.
World’s first living programmable robots. The creators have called them xenobots; tiny, submillimetre-sized blobs containing between 500 and 1,000 cells that have been able to scoot across a Petri dish, self-organize, and even transport minute payloads. These xenobots are unlike any living organism or organ we’ve encountered or created to date.
“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
The scientists would assign a desired outcome – such as locomotion – and the algorithm would create candidate designs aimed to produce that outcome. Thousands of configurations of cells were designed by the algorithm, with varying levels of success.
The least successful configurations of cells were tossed out, and the most successful were kept and refined until they were about as good as they were going to get.
The team selected to design physical structure.
Then, the team selected the most promising designs to physically build out of cells harvested from embryonic African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis). This was painstaking work, using microscopic forceps and an electrode.
These reconfigurable organisms were shown to be able to move in a coherent fashion—and explore their watery environment for days or weeks, powered by embryonic energy stores. Turned over, however, they failed, like beetles flipped on their backs.
The video would show you how they physically have done that process.
Later tests showed that groups of xenobots would move around in circles, pushing pellets into a central location—spontaneously and collectively. Others were built with a hole through the center to reduce drag. In simulated versions of these, the scientists were able to repurpose this hole as a pouch to successfully carry an object. “It’s a step toward using computer-designed organisms for intelligent drug delivery,” says Bongard, a professor in UVM’s Department of Computer Science and Complex Systems Center.
Many technologies are made of steel, concrete or plastic. That can make them strong or flexible. But they also can create ecological and human health problems, like the growing scourge of plastic pollution in the oceans and the toxicity of many synthetic materials and electronics. “The downside of living tissue is that it’s weak and it degrades,” say Bongard. “That’s why we use steel. But organisms have 4.5 billion years of practice at regenerating themselves and going on for decades.” And when they stop working—death—they usually fall apart harmlessly. “These xenobots are fully biodegradable,” say Bongard, “when they’re done with their job after seven days, they’re just dead skin cells.”
How they manage to find Code?
Both Levin and Bongard say the potential of what they’ve been learning about how cells communicate and connect extends deep into both computational science and our understanding of life. “The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function,” says Levin. “The genome encodes proteins, but transformative applications await our discovery of how that hardware enables cells to cooperate toward making functional anatomies under very different conditions.”
“If humanity is going to survive into the future, we need to better understand how complex properties, somehow, emerge from simple rules,” said Mr. Levin n a statement. “This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of, which is unintended consequences,” he said.
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.
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