Robots Made With Living Tissue? That Future Is Arriving Now


Can't rest those robot fears? It doesn't help that you're watching Skynet in "Terminator" reruns or looping internet clips of swarm-bots. Whatever the cause, you've got some very real concerns about robotic technology. But can we really create robots that look, think or act like humans? Our colleague Jonathan Strickland, host of Fw:Thinking, explores the topic in the video above.

Unlike biological organisms, with their elegant flesh and energy efficient abilities, robots are a mechanical medium both new to history and limited in power. However, a team from Case Western Reserve is attempting to join robotics with living biological flesh. In July 2016, developers successfully made a robot from 3-D printed soft plastic parts and a mouth muscle taken from a California sea slug. When the developers expose the robot to an external electric field, the muscle contracts. With this slug-bot up and running, the scientists anticipate a future where swarms of these hybrid biological machines enter the water and search for everything from an aircraft's elusive black box to the source of an oil pipeline leak. Meanwhile, these "living robots" will actually draw nutrients from the surrounding water to feed their living tissue. Listen to this Fw:Thinking podcast for an audio explanation:

Researchers at Harvard have figured out a different strategy to pair living tissue with some very specific hardware. Using jellyfish and a stingray, they've created artificial biological creatures that contain actuators — the hardware that makes robots move. In this case, the actuators are made from the living tissue of rat hearts. Macabre as that may sound, hearts are great at moving fluid around and reacting to stimuli, which results in a natural-moving organism that can be controlled like a robot. Next step? It may be to make silicon robot bodies with layers of real tissue, powered by tissue from a rat heart muscle to create an army of bio-bots that swim like the real thing.

Harvard researchers have already created stingrays that can rapidly move through obstacle courses. The stingrays are outfitted with lab-cultured, genetically modified rat heart muscles that react to light. By controlling whether it is dark or light, researchers control where the stingrays move.

But these aren't just ingenious games that will only live out their purpose in a lab. It's possible that living-flesh technologies like these will be the foundation of better artificial hearts. In the future, scientists may culture a patient's own cells to create biological hybrid hearts that will actually change size or shape according to the patient's needs.

These flesh-bots could also be more eco-friendly. Robots with living tissue in them are non-toxic, so they could crawl the ocean looking for oil pipeline leaks without fear that a breakdown would release even more pollutants. And when disposing of the robots, their component parts could decompose rather than needing to be recycled — or sitting in a landfill for thousands of years (or until the robots rise up and take over anyway).

The "Terminator" future is a long way off, but this concept illustration of the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger cyborg killing machine covered in living flesh, created by artist Terry Wolfinger, suggests a darker path things could take.
The "Terminator" future is a long way off, but this concept illustration of the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger cyborg killing machine covered in living flesh, created by artist Terry Wolfinger, suggests a darker path things could take.
Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr


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