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Reproducing Robots Take Center Stage

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If the idea of reproducing robots conjures images of metal-on-metal machinery copulating or cloning themselves, you aren’t alone. Most people think of robots as synthetic creations based on hard metals – machines – but that’s not the full story. Synthetic life doesn’t need to be created from steel, copper, or aluminum. 

Xenobots are synthetic robots created from living cells. Scientists harvested stem cells from African frog embryos. They used microsurgery and microcautery to execute a computer-designed plan to cut and join individual cells. Then the magic happened: the newly configured cells began to organize and cooperate. An organism was born, though not quite literally. The cells began to interact with one another and coordinate together in order to complete tasks– like pushing pellets into a central location. They were created in 2020, but now the Xenobots are doing something new. They’re reproducing.  

The Xenobot’s core matter invokes a sense of synthetic creaturehood. Creaturehood would solve the robotic reproduction oxymoron, but it isn’t that simple. “A book is made of wood. But it is not a tree. The dead cells have been repurposed to service another purpose,” posits Joshua Brown from the University of Vermont Communications. These cells are living, but they have certainly been repurposed. 

To further complicate the robot-to-creaturehood dilemma, Xenobots use a unique reproduction method not seen in naturally occurring biological creatures. They are able to forage for new cells, bringing them together within their mouth-like structure. When critical mass is reached, the new cells coordinate and cooperate amongst themselves, creating a Xenobot “baby.” 

“These are frog cells replicating in a way that is very different from how frogs do. No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way,” reports lead author Sam Kriegman. Amazingly, this reproduction arises from the Xenobots spontaneously. Though the original Xenobots stop and sputter out quickly, unable to complete multiple cycles of reproduction, artificial intelligence has helped to design versions of the Xenobot that can replicate more effectively. They look like Pac-Man

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A Xenobot (red) creating its offspring (green).

Joshua Bongard, who co-led the research in creating these novel lifeforms, explains that this is neither creature nor robot. It is something new. “These are novel living machines. They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Though biologically manipulated organisms are now commonplace, Xenobots are the first organism designed from scratch by an advanced supercomputer cluster and assembled in a lab. Their ability to spontaneously replicate represents a profound message: life finds a way. In this case, however, life was hurried along by advanced artificial intelligence instead of undergoing a more natural, slow, evolution-based form of becoming. 

The system of reproduction used by Xenobots is not entirely without precedent. Molecules are known to replicate in this way – a process called kinematic replication. Until now it had only been observed at the molecular level, which begs the question: what else is possible when natural experimentation and selection gets kicked into high drive by artificial intelligence and human ingenuity?

New frontiers of this sort are not without controversy. At the heart of ethical debates in biotechnology are morality, fears, and hopes. To some people, tampering with the building blocks of life is unacceptable no matter the end result. To others, catastrophic scenarios involving self-replicating synthetics creating disease, destroying the environment, or causing the enslavement of the human race reign supreme. 

The creators of Xenobots hold a third view. “What presents risk is the next pandemic; accelerating ecosystem damage from pollution; intensifying threats from climate change,” co-creator Bongard explains. “The speed at which we can produce solutions matters deeply. If we can develop technologies, learning from Xenobots, where we can quickly tell the AI: ‘We need a biological tool that does X and Y and suppresses Z,’ —that could be very beneficial. Today, that takes an exceedingly long time.” 

Like other living organisms, Xenobots are biodegradable. They are made of cells that harmlessly decompose. They are tiny. But tiny things can create complex systems that scientists don’t fully understand. Learning from these novel organisms in the safety of a lab can have innumerable benefits. “We need to create technological solutions that grow at the same rate as the challenges we face,” Bongard reasons.

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