The world’s first-ever living robots- Xenobots, were developed by a group of researchers from the University of Vermont and Tufts University, USA. These bots are named after the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis from which their stem cells were harvested. Under one millimeter in size, these bots are self-healing and small enough to travel inside a human body. They can move forward, backward, and also spin in circles. While these Xenobots could create an evolutionary epoch, researchers believe that they also have potential risks, and experimenting with such living cells can create unforeseen consequences.
The researchers from the University of Vermont and Tufts University wanted to figure out if they could take real-life cells and make them behave in a specific way, much like a traditional robot made of other materials. Therefore, they took two types of frog cells- heart and skin. The researchers noticed that when they put the two cells together in a specific way, it caused locomotion since heart cells have the ability to naturally contract. Hence, they concluded that the Xenobots could move in different directions depending on their structural formation.
The reason researchers classified these organisms as ‘living robots’ is that these cellular organisms are designed by humans to act predictably, much like traditional robots. Once the researchers understood which combination can make a cell move in a straight line or spin in circles, they fed this information to a Supercomputer. The supercomputer then used different algorithms to come up with a design that ultimately created that action.
This was confirmed by the team of scientists who said, “Computers model the dynamics of the biological building blocks (skin and heart muscle) and use them as LEGO bricks to build different organism anatomies.”
While the research could predict how a single cell works, scientists realized that putting a group of cells together exhibited certain behavioral characteristics called emergent behavior. They noticed that when put together, Xenobots could change their movement, i.e., they would turn around and go back where they came from or link with another Xenobot and travel. They also had the ability to put themselves back together if they were cut in half. The study, therefore, showed that these bots were not completely predictable and may have the ability to do much more than what researchers initially anticipated. Their unpredictability can cause a lot of ambiguity in future implementations and could be life-threatening.
The first produce of Xenobots cannot do much. That being said, researchers predict that Xenobots have a promising future. A swarm of Xenobots can be made using human cells and deployed into the human body to help remove brain tumors. And since these bots are made from human cells, the body will not recognize them as foreign objects. Xenobots can also be used to clean up artery plaque, gather microplastic contamination from oceans and collect radioactive wastes. Another noticeable fact about the Xenobots is that since they are biological, they have a natural tendency to break down. The study showed that the Xenobots lasted for about seven to ten days before they stopped functioning and naturally decomposed. This generation of Xenobots were made using skin and heart cells, the future ones can be made using photoreceptors or other types of cells that help them navigate and understand their environment. While these suggested uses are far down the line, they show the massive potential of these organisms.
The downside of this groundbreaking discovery is that it incites fear of new forms of life that may one day threaten the existence of humanity. More precisely, it raises the fear that the researchers at Tufts and Vermont gave birth to a process that they might not be able to control ultimately. “That fear is not unreasonable,” says co-leader Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts. “When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.”
Apart from this, once researchers start creating robots that have cognitive abilities, who is to be held responsible for their rights? Where does one draw the line? What are the ethical implications? Most technologies are constructed from artificial materials rather than living materials due to the former’s robustness. However, Xenobots are novel machines that are made up of living matter. Creating such organisms to serve purpose to other organisms may not be ethical and may enforce a new form of slavery. In addition to this, there is a potential risk of biowarfare if this technology falls into the hands of unethical people.
Therefore, while these novel organisms may be exploited by people, proper research and experiments on the potential risks of such organisms need to be done before their next step in evolution. That being said, these organisms have the massive potential to address problems of great importance such as climate change, health, safety, etc., and can therefore be the beginning of an evolutionary epoch.