They've shaped clusters of living tissue so their already performing life cycles are "organized" blind clock-man style toward something we find useful. Not really the same thing as creating a new form of life, though the hype is already beginning.
"The end is nigh! Upgraded flu is inevitable!"... I call Bullshit.
Source: Guardian / University of Vermont, Tufts University
"These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth," said Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "They are living, programmable organisms."
This is the essence of well intention-ed hyperbole which can backfire. The director of a science institution, is a political role. His job is to attract funds for research. This is the kind of red meat the media chews up and Levin's smart enough to know it. Claims of new forms of life... programmable organisms... endless possibilities combining all the benefits of harnessing the total productive potential of a nano-sized super hero. Built to task if you will.
The robots, which are less than 1mm long, are designed by an "evolutionary algorithm" that runs on a supercomputer. The program starts by generating random 3D configurations of 500 to 1,000 skin and heart cells.
With obvious parallels to yoking animals, industries could honestly argue this is conceptually similar to a cow in the field eating grass, but now the grass is some disease and we just figured out how to place the cow so it can do what it wants to do... eat that grass. Maybe treat a wound. Augment the immune system's fight against tougher enemies with self-healing saviors.
Now this cow doesn't "think" or "feel" like a macro-organism. It's a little cell. A powerful and ethical tool built from something no more significant than the cells you brushed off your arm scratching an itch. But then they just have to add the tech sauce to blow up this beautiful advancement into an unrealistic, science fiction movie. They even gave it a cool name... Xenobot.
Four limbed Xenobot by Douglas Blackiston
When a scientist says "programmable" people hear "we can make it do anything we want!" because that's what that word means in the computer world. Anything a computer can do a program can be written to make it do it. However, we CAN NOT make a cell do every potential thing a cell can do because so much of what any given cell does is based on its behaviour not its impressive arsenal of tools.
Just like us or any living thing, cells collaborate and form units that organize outcomes in competition under universal forces that have been influencing the evolution of life since the beginning. Pretending that a robot cell suddenly grants powers beyond already identified living cell colonies and their production is side stepping the real problem. It's another bait and switch like Artificial Intelligence. Promise living machines that'll do what we say, so in essence perform the tasks we find valuable, rake in the cash; shrug shoulders when the potential isn't realized because the core problem, automatic production, was never really addressed in the first place.
Individual scientists who introduce new ideas change the world. While this new technology will almost certainly help us mediate disease rather than encourage it we must be careful to avoid making exaggerated claims on already interesting news.
Robot cells must not become Automation 2.0. Give us your money and we promise to cure any disease with out revolutionary army of microscopic bumper cars. Whatever a robot cell can do there is almost certainly an already living cell that can do that job better, cheaper, and in proper enterprise with its collaborators. But hey, instead how about we spend another gazillion dollars in venture capital to make a short video of a smudge moving onto another smudge. That money should have gone to real research! Boring and real including this great lab through more appropriate mechanisms.
Xenobots might be built with blood vessels, nervous systems and sensory cells, to form rudimentary eyes. By building them out of mammalian cells, they could live on dry land.
We need better ways of funding basic research
We'll choke again on the unintended consequences of too much investment flowing into the wrong hands, anyone remember the dot com bubble? Forget about the speculators. They played the game. It's another generation of science enthusiast getting honey potted into exaggerated expectations who suffer diminished production. Setting them up for the inevitable disappointment. They'll spend careers chasing nonsense just like the AI projects wasted decades distracting some of the best programmers in the world.
[Waves hands sarcastically] Ooh, adaptive pattern recognition... so impressive. Just wait till we AI-augment our little friends. Then we'll change the world... then we'll change... change...change... the... world... Pfff. Nonsense.
It's all about everyday choices. Every single moment lived adding to the unpredictable future of ideas no-one's even thought of yet. Don't be distracted by the interference of administration in core science research. Fund the researchers not the brands that yoke them. Start your own lab. Don't repeat the mistakes of AI research. Scientists are more than just cows placed in fields that need grazing.
Science is beautiful just as it is and anyone can do it. The institutions are self interested markets and though they claim to represent progress they often just represent media sensationalism in the hopes of ginning up undeserved attention. When stories like this start playing fast and loose with the implications of incomplete facts it triggers people's imagination in the same dangerous way that any false message seemingly backed by notable authorities can.
People trust scientists. The way media covers stories like this can undermine that trust because they don't give enough attention to the limits of what these advancements represent. Beyond the drive for clicks we find the fund seeking directors are all too willing to let journalists run away with a story if it means supporting the work they do. I get the motivation, but we should keep the funding attached to real returns.