Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

It's not science fiction. Scientists have really made robots that reproduce


Get ready to be amazed and possibly a bit horrified. Scientists have created a robot that can reproduce. Yes, you heard me right. This week, four researchers published a paper that describes what sounds like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Using artificial intelligence and frog cells, living robots, xenobots, are making, well, babies. We're joined now by one of those researchers, Dr. Sam Kriegman, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Welcome.

SAM KRIEGMAN: Hi. Thanks, Ayesha, for having me on the program. It's my pleasure.

RASCOE: Thanks. So what exactly is a xenobot? I feel like I've heard of this, but I'm not quite sure.

KRIEGMAN: Yeah, I'm not sure, either. I think xenobots are somewhat of an enigma. They're a robot, and yet they're not a robot. They're an organism, and yet they're not an organism. We're not quite sure what xenobots are at the moment. They're robots in the sense that they're designed to behave in specific ways, but they're organisms in the sense that they're made entirely of frog cells.

RASCOE: Even though they're made from organic material, they're programmed to behave a certain way.

KRIEGMAN: Yeah. A robot is defined by what it does more than what it's made out of. It's actually interesting. The first robots - the first time the word robot was used was 100 years ago in a play called "Rossum's Universal Robots." And those robots were made out of living flesh.

RASCOE: So these robots have learned to replicate themselves in a completely new way. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened and, like, the significance of that?

KRIEGMAN: Sure. So we've been building robots since the 1940s, for about 70 years, and even around the very first robots that we were building, roboticists and mathematicians were thinking about would it be possible for a robot to build a copy of itself? How do you store a complete copy of yourself inside of yourself and then read that description? It seemed like that'd be weird, because if you have a copy inside of yourself, wouldn't that copy also have to have a copy inside of itself and a copy and a copy...

RASCOE: And it would just - like a loop.

KRIEGMAN: Yeah, it's like looking at a mirror, and then there's another mirror on the other side, and there's this infinite reflection. So they thought, well, maybe this is not possible. But a mathematician named John von Neumann proved that it actually was possible.

RASCOE: And they have all these different shapes. Like, some of them look like Pac-Man. Some of them look like a Cheesy Poof. And their shape affects how they function. Like, can you give a little more details on that?

KRIEGMAN: Let me just describe that process because it's actually much simpler than it sounds like. The little xenobot shaped like Pac-Man move around in their dish, and they act like little snowplows. There's loose cells in the dish. They pile those loose cells into piles, and those piles develop into mobile little offspring of their own. So it's like snowplows building snowplows.

RASCOE: Oh, OK. There's no, like, romance involved.

KRIEGMAN: None that we know of.

RASCOE: (Laughter) So I do have to ask, why do this?

KRIEGMAN: So this gives us a system to study self-replication, which is important. It's a fundamental property of life. We want to understand it better. And it's a safe platform to try to understand it better and also to learn how to control it. We face lots of self-replicating problems. COVID is just one example. And this is not a useful technology yet, but it is telling us things about how to create self-replicating solutions in the future and also how to just create robots that can work in the real world. We've struggled to do that so far.

RASCOE: That was computer scientist Dr. Sam Kriegman, postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Thank you so much.

KRIEGMAN: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "LET DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.