Xenobots: The Living Robot

Original article was published by Joshua DeCoteau on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


Creating Xenobots

Humans have been manipulating organisms on a genetic level since the beginning of agriculture. This has been made more famous as gene editing technology becomes more widespread, which has to lead to the creation of a few artificial organisms. However, xenobots are creatures that have been designed from the ground up.

Unlike traditional organisms, the function of xenobots is not determined by their DNA but rather by their shape. Their shapes are designed by roboticists in computer simulations using physics engines similar to video games like Minecraft or Call of Duty.

While the physical bodies of the xenobots are manufactured at Tufts University, their structures are designed on a supercomputer at UVM.

The team at UVM used an evolutionary algorithm to create thousands of candidate designs for new life forms to accomplish specific tasks. This basically means that xenobots were built from simulated evolution.

The program created by UVM ran driven by the introductory biophysics of frog heart, and skin cells can do. In this simulation, the more successful designs for the xenobots were kept and used for the next generation while the unsuccessful designs were discarded.

An individual design’s success was determined by how well it performed a particular task, such as moving in a specific direction. The process of designing the xenobots took months on the supercomputer at UVM.

Xenopus laevis, the frog species that the xenobots were created from.

After about 100 independent runs of the program, some designs were taken and used for testing. The team at Tufts University took the most successful simulated models from the supercomputer. They then shaped them into an approximation of the program’s designs using stem cells from Xenopus laevis. However, before shaping them into the computer designs, the single stem cells from the frog species had to be separated and left to incubate.

Various computer-simulated models (top) and their manufactured counterparts (bottom). Image: Douglas Blackiston