Robots reproduce for the first time, thanks to Pac-Man

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In New England, university scientists have reported the first known robot reproduction, enabled in part by the tiny organisms’ Pac-Man-like shape.

The research team, comprised of members from University of Vermont, Tufts University, and Harvard’s Wyss Institute, earlier this year created programmable organisms, which they dubbed xenobots, using African clawed frog stem cells and artificial intelligence. 

For science, but also probably for fun, the team was able to induce certain behaviors, like walking and “working together in a swarm,” by changing the xenobots’ shapes. 

One shape in particular—the Pac-Man—allowed the xenobots to “spontaneously self-replicate.”  

 According to the work, published in PNAS, these xenobots would gather stem cells using their maw, ultimately forming clusters that would grow and form new xenobots. 

“This is profound,” said Michael Levin, director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University and co-leader of the new research. “These cells have the genome of a frog but, freed from becoming tadpoles, they use their collective intelligence, a plasticity, to do something astounding.”

Some evolutionary hurdles remain, as the evolved Pac-Man xenobots have only been able to create lesser-evolved, mouthless, sphere xenobots. 

“Right now we are using genetically unmodified frog cells, and these cells naturally form spheres when brought into contact with each other,” the study’s lead author Sam Kriegman told Dezeen.

“Future work will investigate how to change the adhesion properties of these cells such that parents can form offspring with complementary shapes.”