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Team Builds the First Living Robots (uvm.edu)
87 points by jonbaer 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments





Something about this is interesting:

  used an evolutionary algorithm to create thousands of candidate designs for the new life-forms
Basically, "find a way to combine living tissue together to exhibit this behavior"... maybe the beginning of research into designing "meat compilers." x_x

Essentially that’s how nature works, starting at the encoded amino acid level and building itself up to increasingly complex structures and life forms.

Nah, genetic algorithms are quite well known, and have been taught in college courses since before 1990 or so. They're very useful for certain things, but they do take a lot of computing power to iterate on... they were once the domain of supercomputers (to produce usable models) but are now able to run on less expensive systems.

Needs to be huge amounts of military funding for "meat compilers" to create first ever Battletoad automatons.

It seems they cut up frog embryos and stitched the pieces back together to move in a certain way through involuntary muscle contractions. Maybe I'm being shortsighted, but I have a hard time thinking of this as anything but a rather nauseating bit of Frankensteinian experimentation.

“Cut up embryos and stitched back together” seems like an uncharitable description of a multi-stage microsurgical process where the starting point was only stem cells.

This is the description from the article:

” Then the team at Tufts, led by Levin and with key work by microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston—transferred the in silico designs into life. First they gathered stem cells, harvested from the embryos of African frogs, the species Xenopus laevis. (Hence the name "xenobots.") These were separated into single cells and left to incubate. Then, using tiny forceps and an even tinier electrode, the cells were cut and joined under a microscope into a close approximation of the designs specified by the computer.”


> ...where the starting point was only stem cells.

According to the article, the starting point was embryos.

"Now a team of scientists has repurposed living cells—scraped from frog embryos—and assembled them into entirely new life-forms."

I don't see much difference between "scraped" and "cut up"... perhaps a nuance of scale.


Because they didn't take "pieces" a la Frankenstein. Just single cells.

If the stem cells had been harmlessly extracted from living frogs would you still use the same terms? The experiment itself would be 99% the same in that case, it would just have a more complicated resource gathering step.


The parts were skin cells and heart cells. I concede that they were very tiny parts.

> If the stem cells had been harmlessly extracted from living frogs would you still use the same terms?

That would be perfectly fine in my view. I have no qualms about using living tissue. It's the unnecessary sacrifice of intelligent life that I find objectionable.


I specifically want to know if you would still use the terms "cut up", "stitched pieces back together" and "Frankenstein". Not just whether it's fine.

Because those steps remain basically the same across both versions.


No, I would not use those terms in that case. The construction steps may be the same, but the lack of a lost life is a key distinction that invalidates the analogy for me.

So if they took a frog that died of natural causes and did the same thing, which actually makes it more like Frankenstein, you wouldn't use those terms because no life was lost as part of the experiment?

Correct. That's not objectionable to me, so it would make no sense to compare it to something objectionable. It's similar to the difference between organ donation and organ theft. Although the transplant operation is identical for the two, the analogies we might draw for each are entirely different because the life costs are different.

How far removed would this have to be from an embryo for you to no longer have an emotional reaction? What if they only used proteins? Do you wear leather?

The article itself is claiming 'Living', which is to state that it is something more than a simple protein chain reaction. However to conflate what's been done here and compare it to wearing leather, just doesn't compute. I don't think anyone would reasonably compare a leather jacket to a Hannibal Lecter style 'skin suit'.

I think the parent post's comment is very astute, as the article mentions how it's taking frog cells and passing electricity through them and calling it alive. How is that not Frankensteinian? It's kind of the definition of it.

There is also the argument of making the assumption that there's an emotional reaction...

Morals and ethics classes are taught in nearly all university degrees these days to try and highlight the issues around this stuff, and I think it unfair to bluntly force it into black and white. For some people it's a question of how deep into the murky quagmire one goes, whereas for others "it's just science" is completely sufficient. But, it's clear that the latter will never have complete approval, nor will the former ever have its way entirely.

For me, I look at this experiment as such: Were any frogs killed in doing this experiment? If so, how is the destruction of a life-form comparable to making a laboratory made one? Do the two actually have the same 'life' in them? Philosophically speaking, I'd say not, and as such I call this experimentation a 'dark pattern' and should be avoided: no matter the perceived marketing benefit.


I'm curious what part of the experiment you find objectionable and why.

Is it the destruction of a life-form? Is it the creation of a different life form? Why does it matter if they are equivalent?


I don't have a coherent theory on this subject. My questions were direct and not rhetorical, designed to spur discussion and provide more context and nuance, which you have. Thanks.

For me, it would need to not involve the unjustified sacrifice of intelligent life. I believe this is a viewpoint that increases the longterm survival probability of humankind.

We can't really yet design organisms on a genetic level to fully control their phenotype. But if we would - and wanted to - something like this seems like a step to that direction.

I'm not sure what you find nauseating about this. If you want muscle and skin cells frog embryos are as fine source as any, I suppose.


> If you want muscle and skin cells frog embryos are as fine source as any, I suppose.

There's the issue. I prefer to see us pursue technologies that don't require the harvesting of parts from intelligent life, even if we deem that intelligence to be low or embryonic. Yes, I am aware that we are omnivores, but I believe we can make ourselves into something better. I see this kind of experimentation as a step backwards.


> I prefer to see us pursue technologies that don't require the harvesting of parts from intelligent life, even if we deem that intelligence to be low or embryonic.

How do you define "intelligent life"? If frogs and embryos are considered intelligent life, then you really are painting yourself into a corner.

> Yes, I am aware that we are omnivores, but I believe we can make ourselves into something better.

What's better than omnivores? Evolutionarily speaking, that's the best out there. Not sure we can do better, but I'd love to hear what you had in mind.


> How do you define "intelligent life"?

Currently, my simplest definition is "any self-aware organism capable of predicting the future to some degree."

> What's better than omnivores?

Previous omnivores.

I think we are rapidly getting to the point where we will be able to sustain ourselves effectively with non-animal foods in a way that will be more nutritious, more sustainable, and more environmentally friendly.

I want humankind to prosper longterm and I think our most immediate challenge to that is our violence towards each other and towards our environment; either one of which may very well destroy us in the next 100 years. If the majority of us adopted a view that intelligent life at all levels should be protected, I believe that our violence towards each other and towards our environment will abate. I hope this will allow us to address the next major challenge, which I see as a mass extinction event similar to one of the many we see written in Earth's geological record. To overcome this, we will need to become more intelligent, we will need to dramatically advance our technologies, and we will probably need to populate other worlds. But first, we need to not destroy ourselves.


> Currently, my simplest definition is "any self-aware organism capable of predicting the future to some degree."

Frogs and certainly embryos are not self-aware.

> I think we are rapidly getting to the point where we will be able to sustain ourselves effectively with non-animal foods in a way that will be more nutritious, more sustainable, and more environmentally friendly.

Nothing more nutritious than animal foods. This is basic science and evolutionary truth. The only other alternative to fit your description is the environmentally ruinous vegan diet which is terrible for humans.

> I want humankind to prosper longterm and I think our most immediate challenge to that is our violence towards each other and towards our environment;

I want humankind to prosper as well. Look how virtuous, caring and good we both are. Aren't we great? The immediate danger is the messianic lunacy being spread by traditional media and social media.

> If the majority of us adopted a view that intelligent life at all levels should be protected

Sadly, I don't think you could convince those militant and violent vegans set on destroying as much intelligent plant life as possible. But maybe you, caring as you are, can single-handedly stop them.

https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-in...

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170109-plants-can-see-hear-...

If intelligent life must be protected then I guess we have to take dogs and cats from their owners since these animals require meat to be healthy ( for cats to live since they are obligate carnivores ). I don't know how you sleep at night knowing that trillions of animals are being killed and eaten by other animals every day.

Also, the most environmentally friendly diet is the hunter-gatherer diet, which you in your immense wisdom probably reject in support of mass agriculture - the worst thing for the environment.


> Frogs and certainly embryos are not self-aware.

The evidence indicates that frogs are most certainly self-aware[1]. Embryos are potential intelligent life.

> Nothing more nutritious than animal foods.

Maybe I was unclear. I believe we will create better alternatives.

> Sadly, I don't think you could convince those militant and violent vegans set on destroying as much intelligent plant life as possible.

While there are indications of a degree of plant intelligence and even some self-awareness, edible plants generally rely on being consumed in order to proliferate. I do think it is in our best interest to protect plant life though.

> I don't know how you sleep at night knowing that trillions of animals are being killed and eaten by other animals every day.

I have no problem with animals eating each other.

> Also, the most environmentally friendly diet is the hunter-gatherer diet,

I agree. Unfortunately, it's not practical for 8 billion people to forage this earth. Also, it doesn't leave much time for advancing ourselves.

[1] https://jeb.biologists.org/content/222/11/jeb197467


> the environmentally ruinous vegan diet

Uh, what? you think eating veg instead of meat is bad for the environment? you're wrong.

> nothing is more nutritious than animal foods

look, I like meat, but this is expicitly wrong, and it doesn't even really make sense.


is current breakthrough this:

"The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function," ?


Makes me think more of The Island of Dr Moreau (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Island_of_Doctor_Moreau) but yeah. Sounds useful, but ghoulish.

Rare that a headline is so worthy, these are novel living things that are not from nature. Quite an achievement, well done, I think, obviously terrifying and disturbing too, what could possibly go wrong...

Ah! The penny drops! Dr. Michael Levin hinted at these back in his amazing talk: "What Bodies Think About: Bioelectric Computation Outside the Nervous System" (youtube.com)

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18736698

This is the true Information Revolution: when we learn to "talk" to the four-billion-year-old nanotech that the world and we ourselves are made of.


Very interesting and exciting work. Michael Levin (one of the scientists in this study) has some amazing things going on in his lab. There is a few talks of him on YouTube, I have seen the following one from May this year

https://youtu.be/4sFpJF0dp8Y

All sorts of work about setting the electrical potential between cells/parts of the body to certain states to induce the desired growth. E.g. growing a eye on the gut of a tadpoles.


Michael Levin gave a talk about the reprogramming tech used in this around a year ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjD1aLm4Thg

One is reminded of the Primordials from Twig. In that crapsack world, they were considered the most horrible things with which humanity could ever have the misfortune to coexist. Maybe it will work out better IRL!

So, now I imagine a softy squishy and alive bed, breathing living room, and my wires, computers, keyboards, all that old pre-VR hardware finally floating in a living womb. Organic Internauting iz now.

Reminiscent of Dune, which had living "chairdogs".

Or Red Dwarf (novel);

    The trend spread. GELFs, Genetically Engineered Life Forms, were everywhere,
    and soon virtually every consumer product was made of living tissue. Gelf 
    armchairs, which could sense your mood, and massage your shoulders when 
    you were feeling tense, became a part of everyday life. Gelf vacuum 
    cleaners, which were half kitchen appliance, half family pet, 
    waddled around on their squat little legs, doing the household chores and 
    amusing the children. [...]

    The rebellion started in the Austrian town of Salzburg, when a vacuum cleaner
    and Gelf Volkswagen Beetle robbed a high street bank. They took the manager
    and a security guard hostage, agreeing to release them only if Valter Holman
    was brought to justice for murder.

    Valter Holman had killed his armchair, and the whole of the Gelf community
    was up in arms, those that had arms, because the law courts refused to accept
    that a crime had been committed.

Cool. My friend's mom was a huge Red Dwarf fan (tv show) but I didn't realize there was a novel. I'll have to check it out.

H.R. Giger would dig it.



So when can I expect to be able to order myself my very own Pikachu?

Pretty incredible but could these be programmed to do harm?

Sure. There are already efforts to create "Daleks" from human brain organoids.



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