What will be the robotic life? here we start! It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Scientists have created what has been described as the first living robots in the lab, and they did so by first trying out different mixtures using an “evolutionary algorithm”, what you can call e-evolution.
Before readers start imagining androids made of flesh I should point out that these “xenobots” are less than a millimetre wide and the adjoining thing they have to limbs are two stumps that they use to swim through liquids for weeks at a time without requiring extra nutrition. They are made up of embryonic stem cells taken from the African clawed frog, known scientifically as Xenopus laevis, which inspired the name for the minute bots.
Now move on to What will be the Robotic Life?
Think of a simple drone that you pilot around. That’s no robot. But give a drone the power to take off and land on its own and sense objects and suddenly it’s a lot more robot-ish. It’s the intelligence and sensing and autonomy that’s key.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s that a company built something that started meeting those procedures. That’s when SRI International in Silicon Valley developed Shakey, the first truly mobile and perceptive robot. This tower on wheels was well-named—awkward, slow, twitchy. Fortified with a camera and bump sensors, Shakey could navigate a complex environment. It wasn’t a particularly confident-looking machine, but it was the beginning of the robotic revolution.
Around the time Shakey was trembling about, robot arms were start to transform manufacturing. The first among them was Unimate, which fused auto bodies. Today, its descendants rule car factories, performing tedious, risky tasks with far more accuracy and speed than any human could muster. Even though they’re stuck in place, they still very much fit our definition of a robot—they’re intelligent machines that sense and manipulate their environment.
Robots, though, continued largely confined to factories and labs, where they either rolled about or were stuck in place lifting objects. Then, in the mid-1980s Honda started up a humanoid robotics program. It developed P3, which could walk pretty darn decent and also wave and shake hands, much to the delight of a roomful of suits. The work would culminate in Asimo, the eminent biped, which once tried to take out President Obama with a well-kicked soccer ball. (OK, perhaps it was more innocent than that.)
Today, advanced robots are popping up everywhere. For that you can thank three technologies in particular: sensors, actuators, and AI.
So, sensors. Machines that roll on paths to deliver falafel can only navigate our world thanks in large part to the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, in which teams of roboticists paved together self-driving cars to race through the desert. Their secret? Lidar, which shoots out lasers to build a 3-D map of the world. The ensuing private-sector race to develop self-driving cars has dramatically driven down the price of lidar, to the point that engineers can create perceptive robots on the (relative) cheap.
Lidar is often joint with something called machine vision—2-D or 3-D cameras that allow the robot to build an even better picture of its world. You know how Facebook automatically recognizes your tankard and tags you in pictures? Same principle with robots. Fancy algorithms allow them to pick out certain landmarks or objects.
Sensors are what keep robots from wonderful into things. They’re why a robot mule of sorts can keep an eye on you, following you and schlepping your stuff around; machine vision also allows robots to scan cherry trees to express where best to shake them, helping fill massive labor gaps in agriculture.
In addition, such “biological machines” are, in belief, more versatile and robust than their lifeless complements. “If living systems could be continuously and rapidly designed ab initio and deployed to serve novel functions, their innate ability to resist entropy might enable them to far surpass the useful lifetimes of our strongest yet static technologies,” the researchers posit.
Nevertheless, while I would not quite class myself as xenobotphobic, I do find the possible fallout of biobots and their future negative potential uses rather unsettling, despite the exciting possibilities they present.
Neither the researchers in their scientific paper outlining the outcomes nor the news coverage of the xenobots appear to have considered the damaging and disparaging potential of this technology. However, this does exist and it must be carefully considered in order to avoid the dangerous pitfalls which lie ahead. What will be the Robotic Life? let’s hope for the best.