Scientists from the University of Vermont (UVM), Tufts University, and Harvard University have developed Xenobots, the world’s first living robots, and have stated that the robot can reproduce.
The Xenobots were first revealed in 2020, developed by the African clawed frog’s heart and skin stem cells. The microscopic organisms are self-healing and break down organically and can move autonomously for about a week before running out of energy.
According to the lead author of the study, Sam Kriegman, says:
“Xenobots can make children but then the system normally dies out after that, It’s very hard, actually, to get the system to keep reproducing.”
The researchers used a supercomputer-based evolutionary system to try out billions of various body configurations. These included triangles, squares, pyramids, and starfishes, with the goal of landing on a design that allowed the Xenobot to do motion-based “kinematic reproduction,” as the researchers describe it.
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This phenomenon has been witnessed on a molecular level, with molecules replicating by traveling toward and merging with other building blocks to produce duplicates of themselves. This has never been seen in complete cells or animals previously, but a supercomputer-generated design resulted in a Xenobot capable of doing so.
Speaking about the shape of the initial parents, Kriegman maintain that:
“We asked the supercomputer at University of Vermont to figure out how to adjust the shape of the initial parents, and the AI came up with some strange designs after months of chugging away, including one that resembled Pac-Man.”
These Pac-Man-shaped Xenobots swim around the dish collecting hundreds of single cells and assembling babies inside their mouths, which evolve into Xenobots that appear and move exactly like their parent robot in a matter of days. These new Xenobots can then repeat the process, creating several copies of themselves.
However, in the opinion of Michael Levin, another study author, emphasized that the cells contain a frog genome, but instead of turning into tadpoles, they employ their collective intellect, or plasticity, to accomplish something incredible.
The researchers point out that no other animal or plant has ever reproduced in this manner, and they see the new generation of Xenobots as the ideal vehicle for studying self-replicating systems. While some may be concerned by the prospect of self-replicating robots, the team emphasizes the controlled setting in which its experiments are conducted and the ease with which they may be extinguished.
The goal is that these types of replicating robots will aid humanity in solving complicated problems more quickly. This could entail creating equipment to remove microplastics from waterways, researching vaccines for new viruses, or generating medicines to treat a variety of disorders.
Levin, further maintain this: “If we knew how to tell collections of cells to do what we wanted them to do, ultimately, that’s regenerative medicine – that’s the solution to traumatic injury, birth defects, cancer, and aging,”
“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.” He concluded.