Diving Into The Strange World Of Xenobots – Science Friday

Kinematically Replicating Organisms (KROs; beige) beside loose stem cells (white). AI-designed (C-shaped) organisms push loose stem cells (white) into piles as they move through their environment. Credit: Doug Blackiston and Sam Kriegman

Just under two years ago, Science Friday reported on the strange world of xenobotsstructures designed by an algorithm and crafted out of living cells taken from frog embryos. Those tiny constructs could slowly wriggle their way across a petri dish, powered by the contractions of frog heart cells. Now, the researchers behind the bots have created a new generation of structures that can swimand, if provided with additional loose frog skin cells in their dish, organize those cells into clumps that eventually begin to move on their own.

Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and a member of the xenobots research team, joins Ira to talk about the advance in what he likens to living wind-up toys. The work was reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bongard and colleagues say that they were interested in learning more about self-replicating systems, and the various factors that go into either speeding up or slowing down a systems ability to self-replicate. Theyre also interested in exploring whether such cellular systems might be able to do useful work. However, fear notBongard explains that without a ready supply of loose frog skin cells, these bots peter out.

See more video and photos from the research below.

Almost all organisms replicate by growing and then shedding offspring. Some molecules also replicate, but by moving rather than growing: they find and combine building blocks into self copies. Here we show that clusters of cells, if freed from a developing organism, can similarly find and combine loose cells into clusters that look and move like they do, and that this ability does not have to be specifically evolved or introduced by genetic manipulation. Finally, we show that AI can design clusters that replicate better, and perform useful work as they do so. This suggests future technologies may, with little outside guidance, become more useful as they spread, and that life harbors surprising behaviors just below the surface, waiting to be uncovered. Credit: Doug Blackiston and Sam Kriegman

Sculpting two of the AI-generated designs with a microcautery electrode. Credit: Doug Blackiston and Sam Kriegman

A computer simulation was created in which a swarm of nine simulated frog-cell parents (pink) build piles out of simulated adhesive frog stem cells (green) that are strewn across the bottom of a simulated petri dish. The default body shape of parents (and their children) is a sphere: this is what the stem cells want to make (due to surface tension) when brought together. The default spherical parents (pink) often fail to self replicate in simulation. Credit: Doug Blackiston and Sam Kriegman

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Diving Into The Strange World Of Xenobots - Science Friday

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