In what sounds like a plot from a Terminator movie, scientists at the University of Vermont and Tufts University are claiming to have created the world’s first “living robots”. These robots aren’t made with mechanical parts or computer chips but rather skin cells and heart cells from frogs. The major breakthrough has been shared in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers have taken cells from frog embryos and turned them into “completely biological machines” with help from AI algorithms. The living robots can be designed for a variety of movements and tasks. For instance, tiny “xenobots” can help clean up pollution from the oceans or deliver medicine in a human body. Since the bots are “living” they can potentially heal themselves if damaged.
“We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque,” said co-leader Michael Levin, Director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University.
Living Robots Designed Using AI
The new organisms were designed using a supercomputer and then built by biologists. Scientists would first figure out what they wanted the new life-form to actually do. They then would use the computer to try out hundreds of different possible ways to combine the simulated cells into different shapes.
Once they figured out the ‘formula”, a microsurgeon and other researchers turn those designs into real life. They took stem cells from the embryos of African frogs, incubated them, and then used tools to cut them apart and assemble them into the design that the computer algorithm came up with.
Once the new lifeform was created, the cells started to work together. Just as the computer had predicted the robots were able to move on their own, eventually doing so in a coordinated fashion and were able to explore their environment in a matter of weeks.
Cells Were Able To Organize to Push Pellets
According to the researchers, the new life forms were able to work to push pellets around, organizing themselves spontaneously and collectively, according to the researchers.
In the future scientists think they can complete even more complex forms of these living robots. According to computer simulations, it may be possible to design xenobots that can be used to carry an object or drug through a human body.
Since they are designed out of living elements, the xenobots can regenerate and repair themselves. For instance, living robots can be sliced in half and fix themselves back together again. When the living robot dies, it is completely biodegradable.
More Complex Xenobots in the Future
Right now these “living robots” are no more than brainless blobs, but the cells are communicating. Levin and his team are still trying to figure out how they are talking to each other and more importantly how they can create more complex behaviors.
“So it’s this kind of back and forth cycle between the design and the biology that helps understand the rules of what the biology is doing. They change their movement from time to time, so they will move in a particular way, then they’ll change it, then they’ll turn around and go back,” says Levin.