Xenobots debuted in a research paper by scientists at Tufts University and the University of Vermont in 2020, have been described as the first “living robots” created. These organisms are completely programmable, seemingly lacking in autonomy yet having the ability to impact how we interact with our environment and our bodies.  Researchers harvested 500-1000 stem cells from the embryo of the African Claw Frog (Xenopus laevis), which were then manipulated into a range of simple, predetermined “natural” configurations, like a kidney or molar shape. The configuration of the cells is in part determined by researchers and an AI algorithm, the latter of which has been programmed with general parameters for what shape accompanies a general function. For example, one potential application of the Xenobot is cleaning oil spills, so the shape would be similar to that of a mouth so that the cells could “eat” the oil. Structure and mobility are made possible by the stem cells growing into skin and cardiac cells, the former providing structure and the latter providing propulsion when the cells “contract”. The applications are broad; they can be inserted(like into clogged arterial cells) released into the open( in areas that call for environmental remediation, for instance), or fitted with an object or substance to deliver(such as medication). This is a very new and emergent type of artificial life that challenges the very essence of artificial life, as well as the ethical questions around Xenobots abound, many brought up by the creators of Xenobots. How ethical is it to design a new life for humanity’s own uses? Could Xenobots gain sentience or form a sense of community? How long, in an uncontrolled environment, might they be able to survive? As research continues, ethical questions like this will need to be continually asked.

Coghlan, Simon, and Kobi Leins. ““Living Robots”: Ethical Questions About Xenobots.”



Artificial Life, Ecological Monitoring