Scientists have created a new type of robot that is literally alive

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Sitting in a petri dish in the laboratories of Tufts University and the University of Vermont are a new kind of life form — half living cells and half machine. Xenobots are a scientific and technological breakthrough — a living organism that is fully programmable, capable of changing form and function essentially on command. The new type of bot was first introduced earlier this year, and thanks to a report from the New York Times, we now have a look behind the process of creating the novel creatures that have the potential to bridge the divide between the mechanical and biological.

Xenobots are not like any creature you’ve seen before. In fact, you can’t really see them at all. These so-called living machines look like little more than a speck to the naked eye, measuring up at about one millimeter wide. The idea for the new organisms was first dreamed up on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont. Researchers ran hundreds of simulations using what they called an “evolutionary algorithm” that would simulate different types of cells. It finally landed on the design for what would become the Xenobot. To bring that design to life, scientists scraped thousands of living skin cells from frog embryos — specifically the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis, hence the name Xenobot. After separating the cells and allowing them to incubate, the researchers used a tiny forceps and electrode to cut and assemble the cells under a microscope until they were assembled in a way that matched the supercomputer’s blueprint.

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Scientists use stem cells from frogs to build first living robots

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Researchers foresee myriad benefits for humanity, but also acknowledge ethical issues

Be warned. If the rise of the robots comes to pass, the apocalypse may be a more squelchy affair than science fiction writers have prepared us for.

Researchers in the US have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam.

One of the most successful creations has two stumpy legs that propel it along on its “chest”. Another has a hole in the middle that researchers turned into a pouch so it could shimmy around with miniature payloads.

“These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth,” said Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “They are living, programmable organisms.”

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Artificial lifeforms designed by supercomputers are fully programmable

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This living organism was designed by a supercomputer and assembled in the labSam Kriegman, UVM

Robots are made to mimic living creatures, and as smart as they’re becoming, we can still look at them and understand that they aren’t “living” in any real sense. But that line is now beginning to blur. Researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University have essentially created new creatures from frog cells, complete with programmable behaviors.

The new living robots are made of skin and heart cells taken from frog embryos, assembled into stable forms designed by a supercomputer and set loose in a Petri dish. The skin cells work to give the little critters their shape – which kind of resembles a blob with four “legs” – while the heart cells push them around with every pump.

“These are novel living machines,” says Joshua Bongard, co-lead researcher on the project. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

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