Is This Artificial Life? If Not, What Is It?

We just found this at PhysOrg: Not bot, not beast: Scientists create first ever living, programmable organism. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world’s first “living robots”. This week, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their recipe for making a new lifeform called xenobots from stem cells. The term “xeno” comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) used to make them.

They link to this paper in PNAS — the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. You can read it online, but we’ll stay with PhysOrg. They say:

One of the researchers described the creation as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal”, but a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism”.

Xenobots are less than 1mm long and made of 500-1000 living cells. They have various simple shapes, including some with squat “legs”. They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects. Using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.

Why isn’t this in screaming headlines everywhere? Anyway, PhysOrg tells us:

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. The creation of xenobots is groundbreaking.

Groundbreaking indeed. PhysOrg continues:

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.

Are we imagining things, or is this one of the most amazing news stories we’ve ever seen? The article is long, but let’s read on a little more:

Xenobots may have great value. Some speculate they could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting microplastics. 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.

One more excerpt:

Some argue artificially making living things is unnatural, hubristic, or involves “playing God”. 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.

We’re little more than halfway through the article, but that’s enough. You’ll be reading the whole thing. The creationists will too. Their reactions should be extremely entertaining. We’ll be watching.

Copyright © 2020. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

5 responses to “Is This Artificial Life? If Not, What Is It?

  1. They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects.

    Jeepers! They’ve created fresh Tory Peers for the House of Lords!

  2. There were many headlines about it.
    One thing of interest about the computer use – it used an evolutionary algorithm – “random” (in the sense of not directed to a goal) variations and selecting those outcomes which were better.

  3. For lack of expertise, I’m unsure just how much has been accomplished. Are these objects programmable merely (!) in the sense that their behaviour results from the programming of their DNA, or are they at least in principle capable of responding to signals?

  4. AIUI, their DNA is not changed. The experimenters have used unchanged cells and constructed objects from those cellls according to a pattern selected from the output of the computer algorithm.
    One puzzling outcome: “Beside pushing single pellets, groups of bots put into a dish together were able to work collectively, moving around in circles and gathering the pellets into neat piles.
    “Exactly how that happens is not yet clear.”
    – quoting from an article in “The Economist” Jan 18 p 77.
    Obviously, it had to be intelligent design.