Xenobots: The World’s First Self-Replicating Robots

Image Credit: Steve Carson on Pixabay

Neha Natu investigates the recent phenomenon of self-reproducing robots and weighs their benefits and drawbacks.

The speckles of beige springing around a Petri dish may look quite inconspicuous; however, on the contrary it is an undeniably riveting discovery. Xenopus laevis are the world’s first self replicating robots. A team of biologists, computer scientists and roboscientists at Tufts University, University of Vermont, and the Wyss Institute Harvard, liberated the cells of African clawed frogs from their embryos and programmed them to perform specific tasks. 

The cells independently clumped together and a layer of cilia developed on the outside. These numerous thread-like projections allow it to move and make clumps of debris, more specifically clumps of stem cells. The engineered C-shape of Xenobots has proven to be highly effective at collecting loose stem cells, gathering them into large piles, and then mimicking the aesthetic and movement of their parent cell. Unlike sexual or asexual reproduction, Xenobots undergo kinematic self-replication, by moving and squeezing fragmented cells in their surroundings to create self-copies. Typically, these cells would form the outermost layer of tadpoles, blocking harmful pathogens and redistributing mucus along the body. Whereas, with Xenobots, “we’re giving [the cells] a chance to reimagine their multicellularity”, believes Levin, an Associate Faculty member from the Wyss Institute. Although the cells still contain the DNA of the frog, being freed from the embryos allows them to use their collective intelligence to shape their phenotypic plasticity, which means the ability of individual genotypes to generate different traits when exposed to different environmental circumstances. 

The creators of Xenobots have an intriguing perspective on the future of robotics and biology. Instead of trying to replicate nature with technology, they want to identify the areas where nature can be used to advance technology. The creators aspire to teach the human body to build itself an arm instead of artificially producing one. As ludicrous as it sounds, early results look promising. Cells already build every organ in our body with unbelievable complexity. In a similar manner, Xenobots can be employed to cure neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer-related diseases. Their self-repairing properties allow them to heal normal damaged cells, transport drugs to their specific targets, and attempt to reduce the risk of  toxicity in dangerous situations.

In addition to the potential benefits on the health frontier, it is also believed that future xenobots might be able to remove microplastics from the ocean. They would find and collect tiny bits of plastic into a large ball of plastic that then a traditional boat or drone can gather and bring to a recycling centre. Unlike traditional technologies, xenobots do not contribute to additional pollution. Just like normal cells, they run on fat and proteins, without them they simply whither away as dead skin cells. 

With the ethos of nature, itself, being an ‘excellent’ engineer, they aspire to teach the human body to trigger building itself an arm instead of artificially producing one. Xenobots can be employed to cure neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer-related issues

The hope that glimmers along these computer-designed and hand-assembled robots is truly astonishing, these tiny clumps of cells harbour colossal power for a better tomorrow. But what if with every step closer to autonomous robots, we are simply inching closer to a light that blinds us?

Xenobots are changing the way we view robots and their role in our future. The positive impact they can have is, unfortunately, overshadowed by the negative portrayals in media such as Black Mirror or Ultron. Videos in the media with misconstrued facts paired with goosebump-inducing background music and even public figures like Stephen Colbert’s bits against killer robots push large demographics into an uncertainty. Dr. Elelni Mangina, a professor from the school of computer science here at UCD, believes that “awareness of what AI capabilities entail is very important so that society is fully informed, instead of fear of the unknown, opting to learn what it is and what AI development can do for our society is necessary”.

A robot is essentially a machine that carries out a series of actions automatically. On the other hand, when we talk about humanoids, these are the robots that are constructed to evoke human form, designed with an emphasis on stark functionality rather than expressive aesthetics. With this synthetic life form in front of us, the boundaries between a biotic organism and a robot have been severely blurred. On first glance, we would perceive the frog cells to be acting independently with their own scientific mechanism. However, Dr. Mangina questioned “whether these cells have consciousness in order to make these decisions or is it a sense-action-reaction activity”. 

If there’s a piece of copper in the dish, they’ll die. It’s an extremely controllable, stoppable and safe system

Kriegman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and Tufts University, revealed the frail state of Xenobots: “if you change the amount of sodium in that water to be too high or too low, they’ll die”, he said. “If there’s a piece of copper in the dish, they’ll die. It’s an extremely controllable, stoppable and safe system”.  Although the thought of reproducing robots may unnerve a large demographic, at the core of things, they are simply cells on a Petri dish with a great extent of potential, entirely under our control. 

What does the future of robotics look like? The field is shaping the future in the present with a central role in daily life world-wide. With all that said, it is also our responsibility to specify what we aim to replicate through the development of xenobots and evaluate the feasibility, ethics, pros and cons for humanity. Dr. Mangina warns us about the gravity of data feeding and the importance of bias-free data.  There are different parameters such as social environment, memory, thoughts, basic needs like love and food. Scientists may be able to teach xenobots to analyse heartbeats and the number of breaths per minute, but will they be able to recognise human emotions? Currently we have an intersection of technology and emotion in specific expressions and natural language processing activities. Will xenobots ever learn to love? That is for you to ponder over.

Xenobots might not be the hottest new thing everyone on the block is talking about, but these clumps of cells skating across a Petri dish set the foundation for brilliance. Xenobots might just be the golden key to regenerative medicine or cancer therapy. They have the potential to contribute to the resolution of serious health problems in humans, animals, and the environment.