NEXT: Xenobots and Nano-zombies

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Xenobots and Nano-zombies
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Because animal breeding is centuries old, it makes sense to say that we have designed animals to meet our needs for a very long time. Animal husbandry has been responsible for producing animals that provide meat, eggs, fur, milk and other useful “products.” It is distasteful, perhaps, to use this language, but humans have for millennia been manipulating living organisms to make them useful for our purposes.    

As I have written before, bioengineering is the next frontier in manufacturing. Advances in engineering have often been driven by new materials. Concrete and plastic were two “wonder materials” that helped define the twentieth century. Over the next decade, we are likely to see advances in the use of biologically-based materials. When we refer to “material science” in the future, we will very likely be including living tissue as one such engineered material. Organic material is emerging as the new “plastic.”

So when news emerged about the invention of “xenobots,” I wasn’t surprised These are very small robots—less than a millimeter—created from heart cells and skin cells taken from frog embryos. They are capable of moving themselves in a vat of liquid via two small limbs. Because they are constructed from heart cells—which automatically expand and contract—the robots are capable of independent movement. The skin cells provide the robots with a ridged enough structure to carry out tasks such as herding bits of material in this confined space. One could argue that the programming and engineering of xenobots is nothing more than an advanced stage of animal husbandry.

Xenobots might be used to target drug delivery, or be used in swarms to clean up environmental waste. Unlike traditional nanobots, which are inorganic machines, the xenobots would be made from organic material, and thus would be bio-degradable after use.  

A simple definition of life might be “the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” Although they are indeed capable of functional activity, we should not see xenobots as alive. Indeed, because these early xenobots are designed and manufactured without a way to gain sustenance or without a reproductive capacity, we should not worry about them growing or mutating, because they are not actually alive. That soothes one ethical concern we might harbor: that we are creating a new life form. But in so designing xenobots from living material without the capacity to grow and reproduce, they would be animate and yet unalive, dead and yet undead. They are almost like zombies. Indeed, let’s call them nano-zombies: organic, inert yet animated.

Or perhaps xenobots are more akin to a virus. Scientists puzzle over whether or not viruses are living. While viruses contain RNA and DNA, “They are not cells, they have no metabolism, and they are inert as long as they do not encounter a cell, so many people (including many scientists) conclude that viruses are not living.”

I’m not suggesting that xenobots are actual viruses—for if that were the case it would open up whole new vistas of worry. That is, might they have damaging effects should they encounter another living organisms? Instead, they might be only analogous to viruses in that their status as living organisms (as opposed to merely animate chemistry) is murky. Xenobots are organic, contain DNA, are capable of functional activity, but unable to reproduce or change.  

Xenobots are, for the moment, quite small. Will it be possible to design and manufacture xenobots to be to be much larger? Can we imagine a day when, as part of our daily routines, we might encounter a xenobot the size of a small dog or a cat engaged in some function or task? The company Piaggio Fast Forward has just released Gita, a small, personalized robot that follows its owner around not unlike BB-8 followed Rey around in Star Wars. Can we imagine a day when something like our Gita is built from organic material, and follows us around like a devoted dog?

Xenobots have been developed with a goal of being functional in some way, that they can perform some sort of task. Engineers and technologists are not the only ones who work with new or interesting materials. Inasmuch as artists also work with materials, I can also imagine a day when they will look to such organic materials to create zombie works of art. Artists would create an animated assembly of cells intended for aesthetic effect rather than for functional use. There is already a thriving subgenre called bioart; bioartists create art with living tissue, bacteria, worms and other living organisms. It is possible that in the near future you will see an animated blob walking down the street, whose only purpose would be for aesthetic pleasure or social commentary.  

In any event, we should be readying ourselves for co-existing with not-alive living forms.  

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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