Scientists make tiny frog robots that can create new versions of themselves

(Doug Blackiston and Sam Kriegman)

Robots that can replicate themselves have been developed by scientists in new breakthrough research.

The miniscule biological organisms, created by scientists at Tufts University and the University of Vermont, are based on the skin cells of African clawed frogs.

Scientists have been developing these creatures for years, already giving them the capability to swim through liquid and move through tubes. Over time, they have also able to collect particles, heal themselves, and store information from their history – and now, they can replicate themselves.

“Some people have said in the past that xenobots are not organisms because they don’t replicate. Well, now they replicate,” said Michael Levin director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts.

The first generation of these replicating robots had to be created by hand, but the ability to duplicate themselves will apparently make them more useful to humans – able to produce insulin and or repair spinal cord injuries, both of which require progressively more robots to be generated over time.

The choice of shape was also vital. Using supercomputers, the scientists were able to run evolutionary algorithms that would run body shapes through simulations to discover which would be most likely to replicate.

The final shape – a semi-torus – makes the creatures look similar to Pac-Man; but the researchers are looking to develop them towards new designs.

The first generation of these robots were made by squashing spheres of hairy frog embryo cells together, then cutting the shapes out like a sculptor removing clay.

The robots swirled around the dish, and when the researchers added more stem cells the xenobots spontaneously made more bots. These new bots will then construct more, and so on – for up to five generations, the researchers say.

“Going beyond the frog is certainly a goal,” said Douglas Blackiston, a senior scientist at the Allen Discovery Centre. “We are looking into creating bots from mammalian cell types. The latter would be important to be compatible for potential medical applications.”

“You can create different behaviours by putting together different types of cells—they may even come from different species. Eventually we would like to have a library of modules where you go to the freezer, pull out the features you want, hook them together and you have a designer organism.”

This form of propagation is apparently never seen in nature, with organisms dividing into two asexually or casting out spores – not to mention the more complex reproductive activities of humans and other, more advanced creatures.

However, the cells are only able to construct more balls of cells; the scientists must still surgically modify them to give them their ‘mouth’.

The researchers say they are currently “very much focused now on creating guidance systems for the bots—sensors to help bring them to a target, or attract them to back a collection point after their work is done”.

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