Virtual Creatures Come to Life Researchers programmed AI to design living machines

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1 min read
Programmable organism at 4x speed

When artificial intelligence meets biology, even the simplest life forms can be mind-blowing.

What happened: Researchers at Tufts and the University of Vermont programmed an evolutionary algorithm to design virtual organisms with specific capabilities. Then they implemented the designs using animal cells to produce living machines, as illustrated in this video.

How it works: The algorithm designed organisms to meet one of four behavioral goals: locomotion, object manipulation, object transportation, and collective behavior.

  • For each goal, the algorithm started with randomly assembled virtual organisms. Then it replaced those that performed poorly with mutated copies of better-performing versions, and so on for 100 trials.
  • The virtual organisms consisted of two building blocks: Elements that contract and those that passively hold the structure together.
  • The researchers built the most successful virtual organisms using cells harvested from frogs. In these biological versions — globs of tissue around 1 millimeter wide — pumping heart cells substituted for contracting elements and skin cells replaced structural ones.
  • The team set these tiny Frankensteins loose in petri dishes and monitored how closely the copies replicated the behaviors of their virtual progenitors. The biological versions usually required a few iterations before they performed as expected.

Why it matters: The authors envision a “scalable pipeline for creating functional novel life forms.” They believe their approach could yield bugs that perform a variety of tasks, like digesting spilled oil or gathering ocean-borne plastic particles. They could also deliver medicine, identify cancer, or clear away arterial plaque.

We’re thinking: We humbly request an army of biobots designed to scrub bathrooms.


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