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Autonomous Living Organisms Powered by Algorithms: A Glance into the Unknown


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

For as long as humans have graced the Earth, generation after generation from society to society has always sought to answer what is arguably the most humanistic question of all, who exactly are we as a species, and where do we come from? Without delving too deep into that very question (that’s an entirely different piece in it of itself), one of the other paramount questions that plays right off of these very notions has always been the question of other life forms; more specifically say other species from other planets, or perhaps even one day robot’s running the world and taking over the human race completely. It is with all this said that then begs the question, just how capable are our current scientific and technological advancements in being able to provide a glimpse into the wide array of possibilities that could come with attempting to answer one of these universally paramount questions and what that might actually look like.

Recently, researchers were able to take cells from frog embryos and then grow them into completely new organisms that were “evolved” by algorithms, something that researchers are now beginning to dub as the world’s first “living machine.” While the original stem cells came from frogs, the African clawed frog, otherwise known as Xenopus laevis, doesn’t resemble any known amphibians on the planet. In fact, these tiny blobs measure out to only 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) wide, comprised of living tissue that biologists have assembled into bodies crafted using computer models, according to a new study.

Xenobots in the research conducted by UVM and Tufts University.(Image: © Douglas Blackiston, Tufts University)

These organisms have the capacity to move independently as well as collectively, with the capabilities to even self-heal their own wounds and survive for weeks at a time. Furthermore, as reported these organisms could also potentially be used to one day transport medicine’s inside a patient’s body. According to the study’s co-author Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont these organisms are “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal” and as he goes on to explain further, “”It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

At this point one might be wondering just how exactly scientists were able to use these algorithms to create a living organism from the ground up, seemingly out of thin air. Yet, as crazy as it may seem, these very algorithms did indeed shape the evolution of these so-called xenobots. Furthermore, as claimed by Sam Kriegman, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the University of Vermont’s Department of Computer Science studying evolutionary robotics, these xenobots were able to grow from skin and heart stem cells into tissue clumps consisting of hundreds of cells that moved in pulses powered by heart muscle tissue. As Kriegman explains, “There’s no external control from a remote control or bioelectricity. This is an autonomous agent — it’s almost like a wind-up toy.”

Biologists then fed a list of constraints into a computer for these autonomously created xenobots, an of example of which can be seen through the maximum muscle power of the tissues within these organisms, and as a result just how they might be able to maneuver through a watery terrain. The algorithm then was able to produce generations of these tiny organisms, where the highest performing bots would “reproduce” inside the algorithm, almost serving as a furthering example of Darwinism in nature at its finest form. As said by Kriegman himself, “Eventually, it was able to give us designs that actually were transferable to real cells. That was a breakthrough.”

The authors of this study were able to take this and thrust this concept into real life by piecing together stem cells to form self-powered 3-D shapes that were designed by the evolution algorithm of the highest performing bots. These skin cells were able to hold the xenobots together, with the beating of heart tissue in specific areas of their “bodies” propelling the bots to survive in a base of water placed in a petri dish where they were able to survive for days sometimes even weeks without needing any additional nutrients. Kriegman even explained that remarkably the bots were sometimes capable of healing any significant damage under their own power, an example of which he claims “We cut the living robot almost in half, and its cells automatically zippered its body back up.”

Starting bring everything full circle, another study co-author by the name of Michael Levin, the director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts went on to report that “We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can’t do,” where he provided real life applications for their future wise ranging from areas such as targeting radioactive contamination or toxic spills, collecting microplastics from marine life, or even possibly one day having the capability to excavate plaque from human arteries.

For all of the many possibilities and new frontiers that could come with the power of such a creation, there is always the fear in the back of many minds that there is a fine line and balance between just how much AI or robotic creation is enough, to the point where if humans aren’t careful, they could be at the threat of being replaced by automation or living robots down the line. Levin even made note of such a possibility by addressing these fears in saying “The prospect of so-called living robots — and using technology to create living organisms — understandably raises concerns for some,” and “That fear is not unreasonable,” as “that fear is not unreasonable.”

No matter one’s stance on the meaning of organisms and life forms, this revelation is undoubtedly a giant step forward in one day becoming closer to finding out the true realities of society’s capability to potentially live hand in hand with advance robotic life forms. While we can only speculate at this point what kind of impact something as groundbreaking as this can mean for society moving forward, whether it is able to take humanity to new heights never seen before or winding up to become one of its biggest pitfalls, there is only one way to find out, and that is to walk the fine line of pushing forward for a better tomorrow while also not going too far down the extreme and creating something that could one day over power the human race. As Levin goes on to conclude “If humanity is going to survive into the future, we need to better understand how complex properties, somehow, emerge from simple rules.” It is by this very notion that has inspired a lifetime of different generations to ponder from the past all the way into the present and distant future; just what does it truly mean to be a human and how far will we push ourselves to the brink to explain the purpose of it all.

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