A supercomputer designs xenobots (top row) to perform certain functions, and living xenobots (bottom row) are created on the basis of these designs. Photo is a still from the video “UVM and Tufts Team Builds First Living Robots” made by the University of Vermont.
Recently, scientists at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Tufts University created a new robot made of biological material called the xenobot. This millimeter-wide robot is incredible because it is an entirely new life form, and it is a promising new treatment for diseases.
Xenobots are made of stem cells from the African clawed frog. Stem cells are unspecialized cells in an organism that can be shaped into specialized cells like heart or brain cells. What makes the xenobot a robot, not just another organism, is the fact that its cells are predictable and programmable. Researchers at UVM reshaped frog embryo stem cells into specific cells using a supercomputer, and then biologists at Tufts assembled and tested the xenobots.
In this experiment, the scientists wanted to use skin and heart cells to produce a range of movements in the robot. The supercomputer had the ability to try millions of combinations of heart and skin cells to get the optimum movement that the researchers wanted. Once this design was created, one scientist had to painstakingly create the model one cell at a time. For different types of movements, different robots were created. Some xenobots moved forward and backward, while other moved in circles. This is only the beginning of what xenobots may be capable of.
Xenobots also have the ability to express emergent behaviors. Putting many of these robots together can change their movement pattern and allow cells to link with other cells, travel together, and even self-heal when cut.
The implications of the research, published Jan. 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are practically endless. Xenobots can be used for an array of problems, from treating brain tumors to creating rudimentary eyes for the blind. For example, they could transfer medicine to a specfic part of a patient’s body. The use of biological materials instead of metal and plastic can prevent the body from attacking xenobots, making treatments more effective.
Since xenobots are technically organisms, it is possible that in the future they will have cognitive capabilities, giving them free will. At this point, scientists will have to ask the question whether or not what they subject xenobots to is ethical. If these organisms begin to evolve with the capacity to feel pain and think, they might need to have established rights to protect them.
Xenobots can bring many incredible changes to the scientific and medical community and hopefully with more research, we can understand these robotic organisms even more.