The day of the robot frog is here. Sort of. Researchers in the United States have taken stem cells from the tissue of African clawed frogs and put them together to build tiny living robots. These are the world’s first living machines, robots made from biological tissue that have advantages your run-of-the-mill plastic and metal robots don’t have.
These lifeforms have “never before existed on earth,” Michael Levin, director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, which conducted the research alongside scientists from the University of Vermont, said. “They are living, programmable organisms.”
Researchers are calling these new creatures xenobots, derived from Xenopus laevis, the scientific name for the African clawed frog. The bots are less than a millimeter wide, which is small enough to travel through the human body. And they don’t look anything like the robots we’ve all seen before. Xenobots are basically tiny dollops of moving pink flesh.
According to CNN, the researchers took stem cells from frog embryos, left them to incubate, then used a supercomputer to cut and shape the cells into “body forms.” For example, you can have a xenobot with a hole in the middle that could possibly be used to deliver medication inside the human body.
Once they were created, the robots operated on their own. The skin cells bonded to form structure, and the heart cells would actually pulse, allowing the bots to propel themselves.
What else might the xenobots be used for? Scientists say they could potentially be used to remove plaque from artery walls, locate and destroy radioactive waste, and even clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans.
And although metal and plastic robots are strong and durable, there are good reasons to create bots from biological tissue. For one thing, the xenobots are self-healing. And once their task is complete, says The Guardian, they “fall apart, just as natural organisms decay when they die.” That makes them more environmentally friendly than traditional robots, as well.
Creating these xenobots does raise some ethical issues, particularly because future versions of them might actually have nervous systems and cognitive abilities. And then what will they be, living creatures or just machines?
“What’s important to me,” Sam Kriegman, a PhD student on the University of Vermont team, said, “is that this is public, so we can have a discussion as a society and policymakers can decide what is the best course of action.”