Our command of biology is improving, and we’re now creating the world’s first programmable living synthetic organisms – AKA living robots.


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Last year the world’s first sci-fi like microscopic programmable living robot that in an even more sci fi like narrative was made from living frog cells and designed by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a supercomputer, burst out onto the world stage. Called Xenobots, named after the frog species Xenopus laevis that the cells come from, now the team behind the breakthrough have announced they’ve improved their design and shown off new capabilities.


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To create the spherical Xenobots Michael Levin at Tufts University inMassachusetts and his colleagues extracted tissue from 24-hour-old frog embryos which formed into spheroid structures after minimal physical manipulation.

Where the previous version relied on the contraction of heart muscle cells to move them forward by pushing off surfaces, the teams new Xenobots swim around faster and are self-propelled by hair-like structures on their surface. They also live between three and seven days longer than their predecessors, which only lasted about seven days, and have the ability to sense their environment to some extent, turning red when exposed to blue light.


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“The fundamental finding here is that when you liberate skin cells from their normal context, and you give them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity, they can build other things than what they normally build,” says Levin. “To me, one of the most exciting things here is plasticity. This idea that even normal cells, not genetically modified, with a normal frog genome, are in fact capable of building something completely different.”


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The xenobots, which are between a quarter and half a millimetre in size, also operate in robot swarms, meaning that a group of individual Xenobots can work together to complete a task – something that again is a world first for this type of “technology.”


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Because they are created from cells, the Xenobots eventually break apart and are totally biodegradable, says team member Douglas Blackiston, also at Tufts University. He therefore hopes that they can be used one day for biomedical and environmental applications.

“Roboticists have been looking at swarm intelligence for a long time, biologists have been studying swarm intelligence in organisms. This is something in between, which I think is kind of interesting,” says team member Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont. “It sort of suggests, to me at least as a roboticist, is this a better path to making swarms of useful machines than it is to make swarms out of traditional robotic parts?”


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Previous attempts at creating living robots, such as a wirelessly controlled cockroaches, have involved manipulating live animals, raising ethical concerns. Xenobots differ from these because they are made entirely of living cells and nothing else.

“The approach here is maybe ethically the least problematic because everything is in vitro, they just start with cells, they have no neurons, so it’s not an animal,” says Auke Ijspeert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s really cells that they manipulate, so I find it maybe the cleanest way.”


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But are Xenobots more like living organisms or traditional robots?

“I don’t feel any closer to an answer. Whether these are robots, whether these are frogs, whether these are something else entirely,” says Bongard.

Journal reference: Science Robotics, DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abf1571

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

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