Eye on AI - February 12th, 2021
Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!
Hi everyone! This week, we’ll be looking in-depth at a revolutionary new breakthrough in organic AI with the first-ever creation of a living, programmable organism, including all its potential uses and abuses.
Trial and Error: The Creation of the First Living, Programmable Organism
We begin with what is perhaps the biggest AI news of the past two months: the successful creation of a living, programmable organism called the “xenobot”. It’s not quite a robot, not quite an animal, but something in-between, as described in the ScienceDaily article, “Living robots built using frog cells.”
"These are novel living machines," says Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research. "They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism."
Xenobots were designed by researchers on the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at the University of Vermont using an evolutionary algorithm. First, the supercomputer created thousands of new life form candidate designs. Then, using a computer program, scientists asked the designs to complete a specific task. Over and over, again and again, the computer tested candidate designs for task completion potential, tossing out failed designs and manipulating those that proved moderately successful. After a small number of promising organisms were identified, they were then brought to life for testing using cells from frog embryos called Xenopus laevis, hence the name “xenobot”.
Now in their tiny assembled body forms, these new cells were guided by the computer's design and spontaneous self-organizing patterns, which allowed them to move on their own and work in tandem toward the completion of a simple computer-generated task. They’re self-repairable (something robots haven’t yet mastered), and, because of their frog-based cells, are able to survive in water-based environments for days, even weeks, making it possible for them to complete water-based tasks such as environmental clean up or moving through the human circulatory system to deliver medications to specific organisms.
"We can imagine many useful applications of these living robots that other machines can't do," says co-leader Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, "like searching out nasty compounds or radioactive contamination, gathering microplastic in the oceans, traveling in arteries to scrape out plaque."
Indeed, the applications seem to be endless. Some speculate that the xenobot could be used to clean polluted waterways by collecting microplastics or oil deposits, enter contaminated areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials, deliver medications, or even target cancers. Furthermore, xenobots are biodegradable, and typically die with little to no trace. With so much potential, what could possibly go wrong?
Ethical and Legal Concerns Abound
Remember the whole CRISPR gene editing controversy? The international uproar that led to the jailing of a rogue scientist? That whole thing began as an experiment to reduce the susceptibility of twin baby girls to HIV-AIDS. And while the xenobot isn’t a major threat in its current form, similar ethical and legal concerns abound for potential advances or spinoffs.
In the same way these living, programmable organisms could be used to help target organs for medication, they could also be used to attack life functions, healthy ecosystems, or even for hostile biological purposes. If more advanced versions were to malfunction and go rogue, they may begin to reproduce, attacking competing organisms.
"I think it's an absolute necessity for society going forward to get a better handle on systems where the outcome is very complex," says Michael Levin, co-leader of the project who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts. "A first step towards doing that is to explore: how do living systems decide what an overall behavior should be and how do we manipulate the pieces to get the behaviors we want?"
PHYS ORG contributors Simon Coghlan and Kobi Leins offer a few notable questions that should be deeply considered by scientists and lawmakers alike when deciding how to manage such ethically-sensitive technology, including whether or not xenobots or other living biological organisms should be given kill switches in case they go rogue, who should control them, and how much regulation should there be in case homemade xenobots are created. These questions aren’t simple, and won’t be easily answered. They may even require a more philosophical approach to consideration that supersedes our currently dysfunctional lawmaking systems.
Regardless, Pandora's box has been opened. The positive potential is there, and seems to be unlimited. Time will tell if we’re able to successfully manage the risk. Fingers crossed!
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