Planting the seeds of a robot future

20th January 2020

Researchers have created the first ever living machines. The tiny robots have been made with cells from African clawed frogs. They’re able to move by themselves.

The robots were created at the Allen Discovery Research Center in the US. They were designed by a supercomputer using an 'evolutionary algorithm'. The robots are less than 1mm long and are "living, programmable organisms. They have never before existed on Earth," said director, Michael Levin.

Two of the robots are particularly successful. One uses two short legs to push itself around on its 'chest'. The other has a hole in its centre, which scientists altered to enable it to carry things. The researchers used tweezers and special tools to make the robots from special African clawed frog cells. The robots are called "Xenobots" as Xeno is the first part of the frog’s Latin name.

Robots are usually made of metal and plastic as these materials are strong and long-lasting. However, living robots also offer several benefits. Their bodies repair if they get injured and decay when they are no longer useful.

Their unique features mean Xenobots could have many future uses including removing ocean microplastics and toxic chemicals, giving medicines and treating cancer and serious diseases. They may be designed with simple neural networks and basic eyes. Levin says they plan "to make them to scale" and using mammal cells would allow them to work on dry land.

Do Xenobots have rights that need to be protected? This question of their moral status is a serious area of discussion with many different factors to consider.

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