Life finds a way, and the same goes for even robots, according to a group of scientists who say the first living robotic life forms can reproduce.
In January 2020, a team of scientists from the University of Vermont, Tufts University and Harvard University took stem cells from African clawed frog embryos and formed them into tiny living creatures called xenobots. The xenobots, which are less than 0.04 inches wide, were able to move on their own, communicate amongst each other and heal themselves from an injury, making them the first-ever living robots.
But over one year later, the computer-designed creatures have begun to do “something that’s never been observed before.”
What the team of scientists discovered was the xenobots would move around their environment and find single cells. They would gather hundreds of these cells at once and then assemble an offspring inside their mouth. A few days later, the offspring became a new xenobot that functioned as the others. The group published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS on Monday.
“This is profound,” Michael Levin, director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and co-leader of the new research, said in a statement. “These cells have the genome of a frog, but, freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding.”
Sam Kriegman, a post-doctoral researcher at Tufts and Harvard and the lead author of the study, said what makes the discovery so remarkable is the xenobots reproduced in a way that most animals wouldn’t.
When the scientists created the xenobots, they stripped all frog characteristics from them, meaning they can’t replicate through creating tadpoles. The original design of the bots wasn’t successful in reproducing, so the group used artificial intelligence to help decide what would be the best design for them to reproduce.
The best body shape wound up looking very similar to the iconic video game character, Pac-Man. When they took the Pac-Man shape and put it in a petri dish, it began the reproduction process and was successful.
This process of reproduction, known as kinematic replication, is very common, but only in molecules.
“No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way,” Kriegman said.
While this may sound like the beginning of the plot to a “Terminator” movie, Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont and study co-author, says there is no worry that this may lead to the end of human civilization. The xenobots are small, only live in a laboratory and can be easily killed.
Bongard said artificial intelligence being able to develop the ability for xenobots to reproduce may be beneficial to any problems living creatures face, such as birth defects, diseases and cancer.
“All of these different problems are here because we don’t know how to predict and control what groups of cells are going to build. Xenobots are a new platform for teaching us.
“We found Xenobots that walk. We found Xenobots that swim. And now, in this study, we’ve found Xenobots that kinematically replicate. What else is out there?” Bongard said.
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