“Eureka!” said the microbiologist
What do you get when you give a molecular biologist (with entirely too much time on his hands) access to a supercomputer, AI programming, embryonic genetic material from a frog, and sufficient funding? No, you don’t get this guy. Instead, you get something much scarier:
What’s so special about those little specks in the image above? Those are “xenobots”, robots made entirely of living organic material. There are no wires, no circuit boards, no batteries. They can’t do much right now other than feed, move, and strive to survive, but they are alive. As with so many other great advances in technology, like Ben Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm, the Wright brothers’ first flight or Marie Curie’s fatal experiments with radium, the first successes of new tech are often not practical or profitable, but are only proofs-of-concept, demonstrations of viability, the barest hints of vast and unknowable future potential.
According to the team at Tufts University led by Dr. Douglas Blackiston, possibilities could range from collecting microplastics from the ocean to delivering drugs to a target tumor or scraping plaque from arterial walls inside a patient’s body. What’s more, the mortality of the xenobots is deliberately limited by the amount of yolk, their only form of nourishment, contained within their bodies. Once the yolk is consumed, the xenobots starve to death, and they decompose. Job done, no muss, no fuss, right?
Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, the Tufts team may be thinking too small, for the possibilities are as endlessly varied as life itself. For instance, consider extremophiles: some can flourish without oxygen, others without light, still others in boiling seawater. And then there’s tardigrades which can survive in space. All these have one thing in common: genetic material, and that genetic material may possibly be used to make xenobots.
The mind boggles at the prospects: xenobots that can perform their tasks in almost any environment on Earth or even in the hard vacuum of space, and perhaps even on other planets, moons, or asteroids. And these xenobots are not constructed, but — once the design is perfected — grown for each specific task, needing not precious metals or rare minerals or incredibly precise engineering, but only nutrition which itself might be grown in a vat.
Once the technology matures, you might one day be able to go down to the supermarket and buy a can of xenobots to, say, clean the tile grout in your shower, or safely remove all the stains in your carpet, or empty out your septic tank. Advertising agencies would have a field day with brand names and slogans.
But there’s just one problem.
The can of xenobots has lots of worms, and the lid is gone forever
“Ahem,” comes a feminine voice from the back of the audience, “my name’s Pandora, and I wanted to thank you for letting me out of that box. I’m really grateful and all, but please don’t imagine you’ll ever get me back inside the box, ’cause that’s just not gonna happen.”
Okay, you’re wondering what the “Iron Laws of Technological Innovation” are, right? Simply put, they begin with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote:
“If a man can make a better mouse trap, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” (note: the quote appears to be inaccurate, but the meaning is the same)
In the modern world, it seems necessary to add the following corollaries:
- Leading the charge on that beaten path will be corporatists, ethicists, philosophers, and lawyers. Lots of lawyers.
- If a new technology can provide an advantage in modern war, that technology is going to be developed and used.
The ethics and morality issues of robotics has been a serious topic ever since Isaac Asimov published his Three Laws of Robotics in the 1940’s. Of course, back then there was no such thing as Artificial Intelligence, and even today AI is not self-aware and may never become truly sentient. At least, not the AI found even in today’s supercomputers.
Thing is, those supercomputers — and the quantum computers that are even now surpassing them — are fully inorganic, electrically-powered machines made of steel and silicon and a host of rare-earth minerals. They can be programmed to mimic and even to “learn”, but may never truly be able to understand, much less feel.
Xenobots, however, are a whole different can of primordial soup. Are they made without nervous systems? If they do not have nervous systems, are they immune to evolving one, given that they are built using embryonic genetic material from an animal that does have a nervous system? And if they have nervous systems, how soon will they begin feeling? How soon will they begin thinking? And if — when — they begin feeling and thinking, will they be considered deserving of something approaching animal (or even human) rights?
And then there’s the scary-as-hell implications for the military, given that we are now in the age of CRISPR, of the availability of gene-editing technology to the scientifically-minded masses. Imagine a can of “Chef Xen-o-Bot” being opened and poured down the drain in a major city, and after a week all the sewers (and every toilet and urinal) begin pumping out poisonous gas. Or a can is poured into a reservoir, and after a month of xenobot reproduction, spread, and ingestion, the population begins to suffer the malady or condition of the attacker’s design. It’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek to say this could bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “military arms race”.
One doesn’t have to be a technophobic Luddite to see the potential danger. In the cartoon below, Randall Munroe — the creator of XKCD —was referring to the robotic dogs made famous (or infamous) by Boston Dynamics, but the same principle would easily apply to xenobots:
But again, Pandora is already out of the box, and she ain’t getting back in. The research and development of xenobots will continue even if it were condemned by the world’s scientific community — one need only look at China’s continued research into the modification of the human genome even to the point of having “biologically-enhanced soldiers”, according to John Ratcliffe, the current Director of National Intelligence (though this claim has not yet been verified by other sources).
In any case, xenobots — and all other forms of biological modification — is here today, and here to stay. We cannot go back, so the only way through is forward, for good or ill. For this reason, it behooves us to not only support and fund this research and development, but also to use that funding and support as leverage to regulate the R&D as much as possible in order to encourage the beneficial, and to discourage — or at least learn to defend against — the detrimental, the dangerous, and the disastrous.