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In 2020, a cluster of stem cells from an African clawed frog served as the base for a fortuitous experiment involving a supercomputer, a virtual environment, and evolutionary algorithms. Researchers created 100 generations of prototypes before they had a tiny blob of programmable tissue called a xenobot. These living robots can undulate, swim, and walk. They work collaboratively and can even self-heal. They’re tiny enough to be injected into human bodies, travel around, and—maybe someday—deliver targeted medicines. While xenobots are technically made up of living cells, researchers are quick to point out that they lack the characteristics of a traditional biological life-form. In 2021, xenobots got a design upgrade and new capabilities. While they previously needed the contraction of heart muscle cells to move forward, upgraded xenobots can self-propel using tiny hairs on their surfaces. In 2023, a third generation of xenobots will live longer and be able to sense what’s in their environment. They will also be able to operate in robot swarms to complete a collaborative task. Xenobots are being used to help researchers understand how defects in the hairlike structures in our lungs, called cilia, can result in diseases. Also in progress: xenobots that can travel to a damaged spinal cord and repair it with regenerative compounds. Meanwhile, another type of living robot, the anthrobot, was developed in 2022 from donated human tracheal cells. Covered in cilia, these anthrobots harnessed the structures like flexible oars to propel themselves around. When the bots were grown in a petri dish, scientists discovered they could be assembled into super-anthrobots to perform tasks; a team at Tufts University grew a sheet of human neural cells and scratched a few off to create a defect roughly a millimeter wide, and super-anthrobots on the other side catalyzed healing.

Living robots

KEY TRENDS

Biological Process Identification and Modelling