Xenobots! Holy SH***T!
Bioethics of Programmable Nano-Organisms
Apparently microsurgery is a thing and Xenobots are the ‘latest’ thing that came out of that enterprise, or a collaboration to be more precise, between biologists and computer scientists at Tuft University and University of Vermont. Xenobots are tiny reconfigurable organisms made up of hundreds of frog embryos. They’re AI-engineered programmable living cells. Apparently, they hold great promise for both human health and the eco-system.
“the Xenobots can navigate aqueous environments in diverse ways, heal after damage, and show emergent group behaviors” (Blackiston, Lederer, Kriegman, Garnier, Bongard, & Levin)
These things can move around, grab stuff (tiny stuff), regenerate and even communicate with each other, they can work as a team or a swarm. The weird thing is, just how programmable the cells are, as in, they are entirely programmable! They can be recalibrated from one functionality to another without having to develop that capacity through millions of evolutionary years. Why did nature make cells AI-compatible? Now that’s pure bio-metaphysics.
“After extracted embryonic stem cells have been cultured, microsurgery tools help “glue” the naturally sticky cells together in a range of simple organismic configurations, for example, with molar tooth-shaped or kidney-shaped appearances” (Coghlan & Leins, 2020)
And… moving beyond the grant-hogging academic-industrial lingo: they’re not really organisms, because they are not autonomous and they cannot reproduce, they last for about a week; and “scientists” argue this will change as they further advance their research (after getting more corporate funding, presumably). Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. But more importantly, do we want it to be true? One thing is definite, you put the the words “AI” and “Synthetic Biology” together and you’ll have CEO’s interrupting their brunch to write you fat paychecks faster than you can say “questionable bioethical implications”.
“Motile biological constructs have been created from muscle cells grown on precisely shaped scaffolds. However, the exploitation of emergent self-organization and functional plasticity into a self-directed living machine has remained a major challenge” (Blackiston, Lederer, Kriegman, Garnier, Bongard, & Levin)
So how long will it be until these little algorithmic frog-bytes go from repairing human tissues to merging with the ecosystem in the most unpredictable ways and causing even more damage? Not to mention the potential for their “unexpected” conversion into bio-weapons or new forms of biopolitical surveillance. Imagine a Xenobot transferring your biometric data directly to your local municipality, a pharmaceutical advertising company collecting data on each of your individual organs, Putin sending out Xenobots to kill innocent civilians in Ukraine. Exciting!
Random awesome article about another branch of bioengineering! https://spectrum.ieee.org/draper-dragonfleye-project
- Coghlan, S., & Leins, K. (2020). “Living Robots”: Ethical Questions About Xenobots. The American Journal of Bioethics, 20(5), W1-W3.
- “Scientists Create Next Gen Living Robots” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200113175653.htm
- Blackiston, D., Lederer, E., Kriegman, S., Garnier, S., Bongard, J., & Levin, M. (2021). A Cellular Platform for the Development of Synthetic Living Machines. Science Robotics, 6(52), eabf1571.