(Roughly) Daily

“Do you think that the soul first shows itself by a gnashing of teeth?”*…

In January 2020, as a new plague began to upend life on Earth, a small research team from Tufts, the University of Vermont, and Harvard announced that they, too, had turned life on Earth upside-down. Their discovery wasn’t quite so dramatic at first glance. Any regular person peering through a microscope at their creation would see little more than a few globs of dirty pond water in a petri dish. But those globs were alive; in fact, they were alive in a way that nothing has ever been alive before, in an uncharted space between biology and technology. They called them Xenobots, the world’s first living robot—the world’s first programmable organism.

Xenobot: Xeno as in Xenopus laevis, a voracious frog native to the wetlands of Sub-Saharan Africa; bot, of course, as in robot. It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional organism, so novel that even its makers struggle to conceptualize it. “The terminology that has served us well for many years is just not any good anymore,” concedes Michael Levin, the team’s iconoclastic biologist. His collaborator Josh Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert, has called Xenobots “novel living machines.” Sam Kriegman—the team’s postdoc—prefers the term “Computer Designed Organism,” although he’s been trying on “living deepfake” for size recently.

And they’re all right, in a way. Xenobots are deepfakes in the sense that they aren’t what they seem. They’re robots in the sense that they’re autonomous, programmable agents. They’re Computer Designed in the sense that their morphology—the form their tiny bodies take—was designed by an evolutionary computer algorithm in Bongard’s UVM lab. They’re living in the sense that they’re made of embryonic frog cells, and they’re machines in the sense that humans are machines: biological mechanisms made up of constituent parts.

Xenobots are the first living creatures whose immediate evolution occurred inside a computer and not in the biosphere. The result is a simple organism. Xenobots have no brains; the shape of their bodies is what determines how they behave. And yet, Levin and Bongard do not fully understand why Xenobots behave the way they do. “What you’re seeing de novois a completely novel creature with new proto-cognitive capacities, preferences, capabilities, IQ,” Levin explains. “All of those things appear out of nowhere.” Sometimes a Xenobot will head in one direction and then abruptly double back, as though changing its mind. What force guides such behaviors? Can a frog’s cells, in some way, think? Xenobots seem to have “nano free-will,” Levin jokes.

And this is where the can of worms—or tadpoles, maybe—pops open…

The word “robot” recently celebrated its centennial. It comes from the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1920 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” about a worker uprising in a robot factory. Čapek’s robots are biological, the result of a vaguely alchemical process involving “albumen” with a “raging thirst for life.” Our conception of a robot as being something metallic, with clanging gears and servo-motors, is more recent baggage, a consequence of the science-fiction stories and films of the mid-twentieth century. In order to understand what Xenobots might mean for our future, we’ll have to divest ourselves from the idea that a robot—or any kind of autonomous being—can be wholly defined by its materiality…

As Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, observed: “Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”

Claire Evans (@TheUniverse) explains how “Xenobots may change how we think about intelligence.”

For apposite background, see also “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness.”

Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or in English, Rossum’s Universal Robots)


As we ponder life itself, we might recall (with, perhaps, a touch of nostalgia) that it was on this date in 1959 that Texas Instruments (TI) demonstrated the first working integrated circuit (IC), which had been invented by Jack Kilby. Kilby created the device to prove that resistors and capacitors could exist on the same piece of semiconductor material. His circuit consisted of a sliver of germanium with five components linked by wires. It was Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, however, who filed for a patent within months of Kilby and who made the IC a commercially-viable technology. Both men are credited as co-inventors of the IC. (Kilby won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2000; Noyce, who died in 1990, did not share.)


Written by LW

March 24, 2021 at 1:01 am

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