New Research Leads to Potential Healing Properties of Replicating Robots

Herbie J Pilato

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An AI-designed “parent” organism (C shape; red) beside stem cells that have been compressed into a ball (“offspring”; green).[Douglas Blackiston and Sam Kriegman]

According to research provided by the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, scientists have discovered a new form of biological reproduction—and applied their discovery to create the first-ever, self-replicating living robots.

The group of scientists said the computer-designed and hand-assembled organisms are able to maneuver within their small dish, discover and gather hundreds of single cells, gather hundreds of them together, and then assemble “baby” Xenobots with a similar appearance and movement.

And it's a process that can be repeated continuously. “With the right design—they will spontaneously self-replicate,” said Joshua Bongard, Ph.D., an experienced computer and robotics scientist at the University of Vermont who co-headed the new research.

Bongard referenced the COVID epidemic and the plight for a vaccine. “The speed at which we can produce solutions matters deeply. If we can develop technologies, learning from Xenobots, where we can quickly tell the AI: ‘We need a biological tool that does X and Y and suppresses Z,’ —that could be very beneficial. Today, that takes an exceedingly long time.” The team aims to accelerate how quickly people can go from identifying a problem to generating solutions, "like deploying living machines to pull microplastics out of waterways or build new medicines,” Bongard said.

“We need to create technological solutions that grow at the same rate as the challenges we face,” he added.

The results of the new research were published November 29, 2021, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a Xenopus laevis frog, the embryonic cells initially unveiled in 2020, would develop into skin. “They would be sitting on the outside of a tadpole, keeping out pathogens and redistributing mucus,” said Michael Levin, Ph.D., a professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and another co-head of the new research. “But we’re putting them into a novel context. We’re giving them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity,” added Levin, who is also an Associate Faculty member at the Wyss Institute.

“People have thought for quite a long time that we’ve worked out all the ways that life can reproduce or replicate. But this is something that’s never been observed before,” said co-author Douglas Blackiston, Ph.D., the senior scientist at Tufts University and the Wyss Institute who assembled the Xenobot “parents” and developed the biological portion of the new study.

"People have thought for quite a long time that we've worked out all the ways that life can reproduce or replicate. But this is something that's never been observed before," said Douglas Blackiston, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Tufts University and the Wyss Institute who worked on the study.

The scientists claim that the new research could be beneficial in terms of uses in the medical field.

"If we knew how to tell collections of cells to do what we wanted them to do, ultimately, that's regenerative medicine [and] that's the solution to traumatic injury, birth defects, cancer, and aging," Michael Levin, Ph.D., a co-leader of the research, added. "All of these different problems are here because we don't know how to predict and control what groups of cells are going to build. Xenobots are a new platform for teaching us."

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Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including biographies of Mary Tyler Moore, and "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery. He also writes for Emmys.com, TVWriter.com, and is the host and an executive producer of "Then Again with Herbie J Pilato," a classic TV talk show.

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