Living, programmable robots raise ethics concerns


In Boston, researchers have created living, programmable organisms that could one day have widespread applications, including cleaning microplastics from the oceans.

Dubbed xenobots by their creators at Tufts University and University of Vermont, the 500–1,000-cell, biodegradable organisms are living robots made from frog stem cells. By using frog heart cells—programmed to contract and relax—the xenobots achieved motion. They can also be programmed to perform simple tasks, such as move toward an object, and repair themselves if damaged. Their design was made possible by artificial intelligence.

In addition to cleaning up microplastics, the researchers also say xenobots could be used to collect toxins or radioactive materials from places humans cannot go, or they could carry drugs within the human body.

The work has, however, raised ethical concerns about the possibility of malicious intent in the programming, or that the xenobots could overcome certain species or even develop intelligence.