Don’t panic! The robots are alive and replicating themselves12 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
When you think of a robot, what do you imagine?
A big clunky head of metal?
A dancing police dog?
Or perhaps, a floor cleaner?
Well, either way, chances are you’d imagine something made of metal or plastic and filled up wires, computer chips and circuit boards. Now, how would you feel about this robot being alive and capable of creating even more robots such as itself?
Think about it.
Well, regardless of how that made you feel, you’d better brace yourself because the world just witnessed the first-ever self-reproducing robot. And scientists claim that they’ve never seen anything like it before.
Wait a minute!! What is that!?!
Well, scientists never seen anything like these robots before either. Remember when I asked you to let your mind paint a picture of a robot, and we settled on something clunky with wires or circuit boards? We couldn’t be further from the truth. The robot that we’re talking about today is the Xenobot; The tiny pink blob of flesh that could someday clean our oceans, fix our organs, and maybe even make us young forever!
So, what are there exciting/terrifying Xenobots, and what can they do? Let’s find out.
Xenobots are tiny millimetre long robots made entirely of living cells. These minuscule creatures have been generated with the help of computer programs or artificial intelligence to perform specific functions and move around. But, to really understand what they are, let’s follow the process that scientists undertook in order to bring these robots to (life?).
First, the scientists headed off to Africa to find a creature with the perfect cell structure for their invention. And Voila! they met just the frog that they needed.
The frog that they picked was the African clawed frog or Xenopus laevis. The reason that the scientists picked a frog was due to the fact that like all frogs it lived both in water and on land.
A creature that lives both in water and on land is known as an amphibian.
So are these robots frogs? Not at all.
Once the scientists identified the creature that would help create the world’s first living robot, they headed straight for its stem cells. You may remember stem cells from the scientists who wanted to bring back the woolly mammoth or ensure that the black-footed ferret doesn’t go extinct.
Click on these images to know more about stem cells and their various uses.
Stem cells are the cells capable of developing into various other body parts and structures. In fact, stem cells are responsible for the creation of all new organisms. Can you guess where in the body one would be able to find stem cells?
That’s right. You can find stem cells within the egg cell of the mother of any animal.
So, once the scientists got to the egg of the African clawed frog they injected it with some genetic material in order to fertilise it.
As you would imagine, all mothers aren’t constantly roaming around with babies growing inside of them but rather have the potential, or capability of having a baby grow within their bodies. So, scientists took the frog mother’s very capable egg cell and activated it to produce an embryo or the very first stage of a living baby.
Genetic material is the part of the cell that is filled with codes that determine how the cell will work and what it will produce. Our genes decide how our organs will look and encode all the various ways in which we will grow to be complete functioning living creatures or animals.
From cells to an organism
Now that they had created a fresh embryo, the scientists needed to get to it. So, they tore open the egg cell and poked into the tiny embryo and extracted a few stem cells. Stem cells are probably the most special cells in any living creature. These cells can morph into absolutely anything. That means these cells go on and multiply into skin cells, heart cells, brain cells, and a whole lot more! For this robot building exercise, the scientists used stem cells that would develop into skin and heart cells and tissue.
While the skin cells make up most of the Xenobot, the heart cells pulsate and help the creature move.
A computer designed organism
Now, these robots may be known as human-made creatures, but the truth is that without the magic of computers, they wouldn’t exist at all. Ordinarily, when a creature is formed, it takes thousands of years for its cells to slowly learn how to behave so that they can function to the best of their abilities. But, you guessed it. Xenobots aren’t waiting around for thousands of years to get moving on their evolution.
So, what did computers do? Well, scientists used computers to shape these marvellous creatures so that they could move around, heal themselves and perform simple tasks such as picking up microscopic particles.scientists decided to reshape and reorganise the clumps of cells that naturally developed from the frogs stem cells. How? By going through every possibility that there possibly is.
Okay, okay! Don’t pull your hair out just yet. Let us try to understand this using the clunky metal robots that we already know.
So far, whenever us humans had to make a robot we would encode instructions into microchips and these microchips would form the brain of the robot. But that was not all. There is a reason that robots look like this
Well, it’s because after a robot has been told what to do, it also needs to know how to move, and its shape must work perfectly so that it can complete the task it set out to do. And this is where living robots make scientists work, well easier. And that’s because living cells are already programmed to do things. Your heart cells are programmed to expand and contract so your heart can beat, your blood cells are designed to carry oxygen, your kidney cells are designed for filtration and so on so forth.
So, armed with this natural advantage, the scientists set out to make something that was shaped perfectly to move in the way they wanted it and do the tasks they needed to be done. The computers tested thousand of shapes after which they found the one shape that would make these natural robots the most effective. So scientists allowed clumps of cells to grow and then slowly and painstakingly shaped them according to the computer’s instructions.
Each Xenobot has about 5,000 cells.
So far, these robots are still at a very basic stage of their development. But even then, they can already heal themselves, remember instructions, work together in groups, collect tiny micro-particles, and reproduce!!!
As you’d imagine, Xenobots aren’t your regular invention. So far, these creatures have been kept contained in a lab and can live for only about 10 days. However, this science-fiction reality has everyone bursting with questions, here are a few to help you get your mind racing.
Are Xenobots just clusters of cells, or are they living creatures?
Can Xenobots make their own decisions?
How do you think Xenobots could be used in the future?
Do you think this is an exciting or dangerous invention?