Recently, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their research on making a new lifeform called Xenobots from stem cells.
Xenobots are a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology; resulting in a living robot.
Xeno, as they call the lifeform, comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis), which was used to make them.
One of the researchers on the project, while speaking on the form, described the creation as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal.“
The researcher called the form a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
According to the publication, the Xenobots are less than 1mm long, and are has between 500 and 1000 living cells. They also have various simple shapes.
The Xenobots are able to propel themselves in linear or circular directions, and can join together to act collectively.
They can also move small objects, and, using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.
While the Xenobots, which are “reconfigurable biomachines” could vastly improve human, animal, and environmental health, they pose legal and ethical concerns.
Strange new creature
To make xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform certain tasks.
The computer was programmed with an AI “evolutionary algorithm” to predict which organisms would likely display useful tasks, such as moving towards a target.
After the selection of the most promising designs, the scientists attempted to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells, which were manually joined using microsurgery tools.
The heart cells in these bespoke assemblies contract and relax, giving the organisms motion. Despite being described as “programmable living robots”, they are actually completely organic and made of living tissue.
The term “robot” has been used because xenobots can be configured into different forms and shapes, and “programmed” to target certain objects—which they then unwittingly seek.
They can also repair themselves after being damaged.
Some speculate that Xenobots could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting micro-plastics.
Similarly, they may be used to enter confined or dangerous areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials.
Xenobots designed with carefully shaped “pouches” might be able to carry drugs into human bodies.
Future versions may be built from a patient’s own cells to repair tissue or target cancers. Being biodegradable, Xenobots would have an edge on technologies made of plastic or metal.
Further development of biological “robots” could accelerate our understanding of living and robotic systems. Life is incredibly complex, so manipulating living things could reveal some of life’s mysteries and improve our use of AI.
Ethical and legal concerns
Conversely, xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way they could help target cancer cells.
They could also be used to hijack life functions for malevolent purposes.
A more compelling concern is that of unintended or malicious use, as we have seen with technologies in fields including nuclear physics, chemistry, biology and AI.
For instance, xenobots might be used for hostile biological purposes prohibited under international law.
More advanced future xenobots, especially ones that live longer and reproduce, could potentially “malfunction” and go rogue, and out-compete other species.
For complex tasks, xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, possibly resulting in their sentience.
A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions.
While each new technology should be considered based on its merits, giving life to xenobots raises certain significant questions:
- Should xenobots have biological kill-switches in case they go rogue?
- Who should decide who can access and control them?
- What if “homemade” xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until regulatory frameworks are established?
How much regulation is required?
Lessons learned in the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks, while reaping the possible benefits.