By Simon Coghlan and Kobi Leins
A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology gave birth to the world's first “living robots”.
This week, a team of researchers made up of robots and scientists released their recipe for creating a new life form called Xenobots from stem cells. The term "Xeno" comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) from which they were made.
One of the researchers described the creation as "neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal" but as a "new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism".
Xenobots are less than 1 mm long and consist of 500-1000 living cells. They come in a variety of simple shapes, including some with squat “legs”. They can move in linear or circular directions, team up to trade together, and move small objects. They can live up to 10 days on their own cellular energy.
While these "reconfigurable bio-machines" could significantly improve human, animal and environmental health, they raise legal and ethical concerns.
Strange New "Creature"
To create Xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform specific tasks.
The computer was programmed with an AI evolution algorithm to predict which organisms would likely indicate useful tasks, e.g. B. the movement towards a target.
After selecting the most promising designs, the scientists tried to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells that were manually assembled using microsurgical tools. The heart cells in these tailor-made assemblies contract and relax, which sets the organisms in motion.
The creation of Xenobots is groundbreaking.
Although they are described as “programmable living robots,” they are in fact entirely organic and made up of living tissue. The term "robot" was used because Xenobots can be configured in various shapes and forms and "programmed" to target specific objects – which they then inadvertently seek.
You can also repair yourself after damage.
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Legal and ethical issues
Conversely, Xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way, they could help fight cancer, and they could also be used to hijack vital functions for malicious purposes.
Some argue that it is unnatural, Hubristian to make living things artificially, or that one "plays God".
A more compelling problem is accidental or malicious use, as we've seen with technologies in areas like nuclear physics, chemistry, biology, and AI.
For example, Xenobots could be used for hostile biological purposes that are prohibited under international law.
More advanced future xenobots, especially those that live longer and reproduce, could potentially "malfunction" and become rogues and outperform other species.
For complex tasks, Xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, which may lead to their sensation. A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions. Last year, the resuscitation of a disembodied pig brain raised concerns about the suffering of various species.
The creators of the Xenobot rightly recognized the need for a discussion of the ethics of their creation.
The 2018 CRISPR scandal (which enables genes to be introduced into an organism) could be an instructive lesson here. While the goal of the experiment was to reduce the susceptibility of twin babies to HIV-AIDS, the risks involved caused ethical dismay. The scientist in question is in prison.
When CRISPR became widely available, some experts called for a moratorium on editing heritable genomes. Others argued that the benefits outweighed the risks.
While any new technology should be viewed impartially and based on its merits, the life of Xenobots raises certain important questions:
- Should Xenobots have biological kill switches in case they become villains?
- Who should decide who can access and control them?
- What if "homemade" Xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until the regulatory framework is in place? How Much Regulation is Required?
Lessons from the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks while realizing the potential benefits.
Long way here, long way ahead
The creation of xenobots had various biological and robotic precedents. Genetic engineering has created genetically modified mice that fluoresce in UV light.
Designer microbes can produce drugs and food ingredients that potentially replace animal husbandry.
In 2012, scientists created an artificial jellyfish called "Medusoid" from rat cells.
Robotics is also flourishing.
Nanobots can monitor human blood sugar levels and clear clogged arteries.
Robots can incorporate living matter, which we saw when engineers and biologists developed a stingray robot powered by light-activated cells.
In the years to come, we are sure to see more creations like Xenobots that inspire both amazement and concern. And when we do, it is important that we remain both open-minded and critical.
More information: Sam Kriegman et al. A Scalable Pipeline for Designing Reconfigurable Organisms, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.1910837117