The tiny blobs can assemble more of themselves at will.
One of the oldest dreams of modern roboticists is the creation of a robot that can, in turn, create more robots. It’s the ultimate form of automation, and provided it doesn’t lead to a catastrophic gray goo situation, such a thing could change the face of engineering forever. About a year ago, a team of researchers from Tufts University, the University of Vermont, and Harvard began making strides toward such a thing with the creation of “xenobots,” living robots created from the cells of African clawed frog. These small creatures were capable of basic movement and even self-regeneration, but according to a recent study, they’ve mastered another incredible ability: self-replication.
Using an AI algorithm, the researchers sought ways to modify their existing xenobots to give them the ability to self-replicate. They eventually landed on a shape akin to Pac-Man, a circle with a small dent in the side. Using this dent kind of like a bulldozer, the xenobots would gather up loose stem cells placed into their environment and clump them together into small masses. After a few days, these masses would come to life and start moving on their own as a freshly-assembled xenobot.
“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,” wrote researcher Douglas Blackiston.
“This is profound,” added Michael Levin, co-leader of the research. “These cells have the genome of a frog, but, freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding.”
Using the xenobots as a framework, the researchers theorize that similar constructs could be constructed from human cells, which in turn could allow them to be utilized in regenerative medical procedures. Not only that, they could also be deployed in the ocean to gather up plastic particles. Oh, and don’t worry; the researchers made clear the xenobots can be easily destroyed if necessary, so this probably won’t turn into a gray goo situation.