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World’s first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say

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Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2021. 9:18 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: American scientists who created the first living robots have reported that xenobots as they are known, can reproduce uniquely to their species, CNN reports.

Xenobots were created from the stem cells of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), and despite being less than a tenth of an inch wide, experiments showed that they could move, work together in groups and self-heal. Now, the team from the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction different from any other plant or animal and “astounding” to the co-lead author of the new research, Professor Michael Levin.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types. To make the xenobots, the researchers scraped living stem cells from frog embryos and left them to incubate. There’s no manipulation of genes involved.

The xenobots used “kinetic replication” – a process that is known to occur at the molecular level but has never been observed before, at the scale of whole cells or organisms, Bongard said.

With the help of artificial intelligence, the researchers then tested billions of body shapes to make the xenobots more effective at this type of replication. The supercomputer came up with a C-shape that resembled Pac-Man, the 1980s video game. They found it was able to find tiny stem cells in a petri dish, gather hundreds of them inside its mouth, and a few days later the bundle of cells became new xenobots.

Lead author of the study Josh Bongard, a computer science professor and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, suggested that a robot in the traditional sense is not about what it is made from, but what it does, which act on its own on behalf of people. That makes it as much an organism as any other plant or animal.

The xenobots are very early technology — think of a 1940s computer — and don’t yet have any practical applications. However, this combination of molecular biology and artificial intelligence could potentially be used in a host of tasks in the body and the environment, according to the researchers. This may include things like collecting microplastics in the oceans, inspecting root systems and regenerative medicine.

While the prospect of self-replicating biotechnology could spark concern, the researchers said that the living machines were entirely contained in a lab and easily extinguished, as they are biodegradable and regulated by ethics experts.

The research was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use.

“There are many things that are possible if we take advantage of this kind of plasticity and ability of cells to solve problems,” Bongard said.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS on Monday.

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