These little Pac-Man-shaped buggers were designed using AI-powered software and eventually figured out how to move, work in groups, and even heal themselves, which, as you can imagine, has massive regenerative implications for the field of medicine. Alas, that’s not the most fascinating thing about these bad boys.
The same team that created them has also just seen them swim out in their little dish, grab individual cells, collect hundreds of them together in their little mouths and essentially collect baby Xenobots, which after a few days come to “life” and begin to repeat the process. A bit like nanotechnology, but not quite. Xenobots figured out how to do this all by themselves without having to program.
“With the right design, they will spontaneously replicate themselves,” explained Joshua Bongard, Ph.D., a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont.
Normally, these embryonic cells would simply develop into the skin once inside a Xenopus laevis seed. But when placed in this new environment, they can basically “re-imagine their multicellularity,” as formulated by Michael Levin, Ph.D., a professor of biology who worked with Bongard on this project.
“These are seed cells that replicate in a way that is very different from how frogs do it. No animal or plant known to science replicates in this way.” added another member of the project, Sam Kriegman, Ph.D.
It’s amazing to think that just when we as humans thought we’ve figured out all sorts of ways to replicate, these cells come here with their collective intelligence and work together on this incredible new task.
To enable Xenobots to be more efficient in this motion-based “kinematic” replication process, the team turned to an artificial intelligence program on the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at UVM’s Vermont Advanced Computing Core. The program then used an algorithm to test billions of body shapes (triangles, squares, pyramids, starfish) until one found the best one.
“We asked the supercomputer at UVM to figure out how to adjust the shape of the original parents, and the AI came up with some weird designs after months of tinkering, including one that looked like Pac-Man.” added Kriegman. “It’s very non-intuitive. It looks very simple, but it’s not something a human engineer would come up with. Why a small mouth? Why not five?”
Amazing stuff, right? Well, if you get stuck and wonder how you should feel about small self-replicating Pac-Man characters being alive in a lab, the answer is probably thrilling, albeit just a little bit worried. We have to tread very carefully when it comes to biotechnology, but if we manage to get a deep understanding of it, it could lead to generational breakthroughs, the kind you only hear about in sci-fi movies – hopefully without any apocalyptic results.
It will, of course, take several decades more (probably even more) before such technology can be professionally manipulated for the greater good. Although rare, breakthroughs can occur at any given time. But finding ways to apply everything you’ve learned and have it ready for public “consumption” is a whole other story.