‘Living’ Robots Able to Reproduce

The tiny “xenobots” exhibited a never-before-seen type of self-replication.

As artificial intelligence increasingly infiltrates our lives, researchers and policymakers must continuously grapple with how to harness its almost-limitless potential while avoiding harmful consequences.

This week, a newly released study appears to add yet another particularly thorny complication to the debate: robots that could reproduce on their own.

Scientists at three New England universities hailed the discovery of an entirely new form of reproduction — one in which tiny, computer-designed “living robots” are able to replicate themselves over and over again.

The team from Harvard University, Tufts University and the University of Vermont built what they called the world’s first living robots from frog cells as part of a study released last year. In the newly published study, these “xenobots” swam around in a tiny dish gathering hundreds of new cells, then assembled them into a new xenobot that looks and moves just like the original within a few days.

In the study, a supercomputer housed at Vermont used an evolutionary algorithm to test billions of potential shapes that could facilitate motion-based “kinematic” replication previously seen at the molecular level. Deep Green eventually churned out a shape resembling Pac Man that achieved that type of reproduction at the cellular level for the first time.

Although it's fairly easy to imagine the downsides of a biorobot that’s able to continuously generate new copies of itself, researchers argued that the discovery represented a breakthrough in the understanding of how cells and living systems work.

Vermont computer scientist and roboticist Joshua Bongard said that what keeps him up at night isn’t the research — which is contained, vetted by ethics experts, and easily extinguished, if necessary. Instead, he’s concerned about threats from disease, pollution and climate change. An AI-designed biological tool, he suggested, could combat those immediate threats by, for example, building new medicines or pulling microplastics out of waterways.

And, eventually, the technology could form the basis for a new kind of regenerative medicine.

The researchers suggested that they, in fact, now have a moral obligation to explore what these tiny, living robots have to offer; as Bongard says, “We need to create technological solutions that grow at the same rate as the challenges we face.”

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