Xenobots: First Living Robots

The content below is from Episode 89 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.


  • This week’s recommendation segment is brought to you by Shannon and therefore will only be on the audio version. Click the link above to listen!


  • This past weekend I opened instagram to see comedian, fight commentator, and podcaster giant Joe Rogan had posted a screenshot of a CNN article.
    • The headline read “World’s first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say.”
    • Right there in the middle of Sunday brunch I knew I was going to try and wrap my head around this Headline that alleged nothing short of a scientific miracle.
  • I read a few articles and watched a bunch of videos and a lot of them seemed to just be regurgitating information that was said on headlines. I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.
    • That is until I came across a video by a YouTube channel called AsapScience. The video title is “This is the First LIVING Robot and it’s Unbelievable” and you should check it out.
  • They broke down the experiment that lead to these “living robots” to the essential components and started explaining from there.
    • Their method worked as this was the first source that got me to understand this project, so I’ll try and do the same.
  • First thing you’ll notice about these Xenobots (X-E-N-O-B-O-T-S) is that they are not made of metal or plastic… nope. They are made of organic material. Living Cells to be exact. Cells from an embryo of an African clawed frog species with the scientific name Xenopus Laevis.
    • That’s why they call then XenoBots
African Clawed Frog - Xenopus laevis
African clawed frog in water with gravel underneath
  • These little suckers are less than 1 milimeter in size.
    • That is smaller than the head of a No. 2 pencil.
    • Their functioning is quite limited.
      • They can’t connect to the internet like your smart phone and they can’t do parkour like the robots coming out of Boston dynamics.
      • All they do is move forwards, backwards, spin in circles, and right themselves when they’ve been tipped over…. oh and they can reproduce… sort of, but we will get to that later.
    • These Xenobots are living robots.
      • The concept is hard to grasp, because they aren’t AI (artificial intelligence) like computer code that has become sentient.
      • No, they represent a completely new form of life. These things are a whole new category that has never existed before. They are programmable lumps of mass that just so happen to also be made of living organisms.
      • And before I get in to how they reproduce, I feel it is necessary to unpack that a bit.
  • The word ROBOT is defined
    • by Merriam&Webster as:
      • a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects)
      • This definition doesn’t quite fit our topic for this week, but ok…
    • by Wikipedias as:
      • A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer—capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. A robot can be guided by an external control device, or the control may be embedded within.
      • Surprisingly, wikipedia has the broader definition that fits out Xenobots a lot better
    • One of my first thoughts when I was learning about these little buggers is “wait… if that is a robot, then what exactly does the word robot mean?”
      • well the Xenobots, being in a category all their own, sort of stretch the meaning of robot to its limits.
      • When the researchers who made these things called them robots, they were referring to the fact that they are
        • 1. made up of other components (in this case living cells instead of metal),
        • 2. they were placed together in a very particular way (with a microscope and not a welding torch),
        • 3. they were programmed by a computer,
        • 4. and they were meant to perform a task in the real world (not just a computer program performing task on a computerized world).
    • The material these researches used was made up of living cells, specifically they were skin cells and heart cells from that African Clawed frog.
      • You see the heart cells contract. Like they move naturally, I assume it is related to how the heart beats. While skin cells do not contract.
      • So in the pursuit of their goal: Put living cells together to make them act a certain way… they thought “can we put a bunch of heart cells and skin cells together in a carefully constructed clump to make them move?”
      • In a crude example I came up with, the skin cells would act as the frame of the car, while the heart cells would act as the motor.
Meet Xenobot, an Eerie New Kind of Programmable Organism | WIRED
  • In order to come up with a functioning structured that moved the way they wanted it to, the researchers had a super computer run evolutionary algorithms to test out a butt-load of different structures. Some were shaped like pac-man. Some were shaped like little cheerios and some were just sphericle blobs.
  • The evolutionary algorithms acted sort of like natural selection, but in a super-sped up way.
    • It tested each structure to see which accomplished the specified goal the best.
    • The structure that accomplished the goal of “move” sort of looks like a human brain to me. There is a cool image of it on my blog post.
Xenobot - Wikipedia

For you blog readers: the gif below shows the “move” structure doing its thing. Above is the computer-generated model and below is the actual Xenobot chugging along! HOW COOL!!!

Here is the “transport” xeno bot structure, designed to transport other cells
  • Once the super computer found the best structures for each goal, the researchers then had to get their hands dirty.
    • This next step surprised me as to how simple and menontanous it sounds… The researchers took the computer generated structures and had to hand splice these cells togther to best resemble the model created by the computer.
Apparently this process took a long time, but luckily cells naturally group together. This fact helped the process along tremendously.
  • So first the researchers think of a function: move, transport, manipulate, spin in circle, etc.
    • Then the super computer (known as Deep Green Super Computer cluster located at the University of Vermont’s advanced computing core) through super fast trial and error type simulated evolution comes up with the best possible structure or model to complete said function.
    • These little clumps of frog heart and skin cells are torn apart and put back together and molded in to that model by tiny hand-held tweezers and tools weilded by the researchers. A Xenobot is composed of about 3,000 cells.
    • In a round about way, these clumps of living cells are being programmed by humans to complete certain tasks. THAT is what makes them robots.
      • … you still with me on this?
  • The idea behind these Xenobots is that right now they may only be programmed to simply spin in a circle, but maybe in the future a whole army of them can be contstructed of a person’s own cells and deployed inside the body to remove harmful plague from our arteries.
    • Instead of nanobots made of metal that could potentially be seen as a threat by our bodies and therefore be rejected, these Xenobots would be made up of our own cells and have a high chance of being able to do their programmed functions without being attacked by our bodies.
    • In the future they could be contstructed using cells from our eyes that detect light to do all sorts of functions. They could be constructed to zoom through the air and consume excess carbondioxide that is polluting our planet, or even designed to eliminate plastics floating in our oceans.
Xenobots 2.0: Scientists Create the Next Generation of Living Robots
  • At this point in my light research I thought these Xenobots were cool, and I could see how one might refer to them as robots. They are programmed and do stuff in the real world… not to mention they have some amazing potential… but they didn’t seem THAT special…. until they started doing stuff on their own…. like reproducing…
    • It is called Emergent Behavior
      • What is Emergent Behavior? it is the wild card that comes along with dabbling in life. When you mess around with life, things get kind of … unpredictable.
      • As Dr. Ian Malcom said:

=input first audio clip “Life, uh, finds a way.” =

  • LET me explain: While a single living cell is quite predictable, multiple cells grouped together tend to display unpredictable behavior.
    • an extreme example of this is you… YEAH YOU! The sexy son-of-a-bitch listening (or reading) this.
      • Your cells aren’t too remarkable on their own. They don’t move too much. They don’t compose music, or even think for themselves. But as a collective they make up you, a fully functioning human being… or at least semi-functioning ammIright? lol
    • When we humans make a robot to work on an assembly line, welding parts on to a Ford Focus as it gets ready to be sold on the market, we aren’t worried the arm is going to start a conga line on the factory floor with all it’s robot arm buddies. No, that would be ridiculous and impossible unless of course a human programmed it to do so.
      • That type of robot is made up of inorganic and non-living material. The robotics community sometimes call them “dumb parts.” A robot made of Dumb Parts isn’t going to evolve on its own.
      • It may have a part breakdown and the robot may malfunction, but it isn’t going to go on strike and start murdering its human coworkers in a fit of concious rage.
    • However, the Xenobots do just that. *sort of*
      • they aren’t complex enough to become concious (these tiny microscopic cells aren’t going to form a conga line or start murdering people), but they are alive. They do evolve like all living things and that is why researchers have observed them doing things they were not programmed to do…
      • The researches started to notice there little Xenobots were moving in ways they weren’t programmed and teaming up in a swarm-like behavior.
  • The most notable emergent behavior was that some Xenobots started to gather up cells and clump them together to resemble themselves… like making offspring. They didn’t birth their next generation, no they contructed it.
    • The team at UVM team (University of Vermont) that first created the xenobots back in 2020 teamed up with a team at Tufts University in Medford Massachusetts. Together they realized they could cut a wedge out of the xenobots to make them sort of look like a microscopic pac-men. This allowed the xenobots to corale a lot more pellets than before, while using less energy.
      • Before Xenobots only live for about a week to at-most 10 days, but with This Pac Man move by the researchers allowed the Xenobots to live much longer as they now weren’t using as much energy.
      • Up until now, the Xenobots were placed in this aquatic environment and only given non-living pellets to push, corale, and transport.
      • But someone on the research team thought “lets put Xenocells in the environment instead of pellets and see what happens!”
      • The result was that the Xenobots started clumping the xenocells together and they started to form structures that resembled the xenobots that created them.
The red arrow is pointing to a programmed Xenobot. The Blue arrow is pointing to the clump of cells that the Xenobot gathered. The black lines are supposed to show the direction the Xenobot is spinning.
  • The Researchers watched with glee as their living robots created a generation of Xenobots that, after a brief incubation period, functioned just like the original generation.
    • But don’t lose your mind over a new species created by man that can replicate and terrorize the Earth!!! … because that isn’t what this is. These things can’t exist without outside assistance. So it isn’t like a petri dish somewhere could be spilt in to a drain and a new life form would start populating the globe… at least that is insanely unlikely to happen.
  • But then there is the ethical dilema
    • Right now science is still in the mess-around/baby phase of this new type of robotic life form. These things are only 3,000 cells a piece and they only live for like 2 weeks, but when we start talking about the future implications of this tech it gets a bit morally foggy.
    • What happens when we humans design a robot to clean our oceans of microplastics, but we find that if we design it to feel pain it will do its job with a lot more efficiency? Do we design it for pain? Or do we realize how ethically messed up that would be to design a life form that can feel pain?
    • I understand the excitement and sense of accomplishment that must come along with this sort of discovery. These researchers must be elated to know their creation has the dictionaries re-writing all sorts of definitions like the word Robot now, but at what cost is all of this?
    • Have they opened pandora’s box?
    • I’ll end this one with yet another Jurassic Park quote from Dr. Ian Malcom:

=play 2nd audio clip – “your scientists were preoccupied with if they COULD they didn’t stop to think if they SHOULD.”===