Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing, folks: “Terminator” is not a fictional film. It’s just a documentary about a future that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s happening now:
“Researchers in the US have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam.
One of the most successful creations has two stumpy legs that propel it along on its “chest”. Another has a hole in the middle that researchers turned into a pouch so it could shimmy around with miniature payloads.
“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.””
If you had your money on the first living robot being a frog, then congratulations, you’re now a millionaire.
It’s not really accurate to call them “robots”, by the way, because robots, even if they attain intelligence, are not alive. These are more like cyborgs – living flesh melded with robotic functions. Sort of like Krang from the Teenage Mutang Ninja turtles, or Darth Vader. Except they’re frogs.
What’s the significance of this story, beyond comedy? It’s actually much more significant in the long term than you might imagine. If we can successfully integrate living, feeling tissue into a machine, then that has huge applications, for example, for people who have lost a limb. We’re obviously still decades away, but if we ever get to a point, and we likely will, where we can construct additional limbs for people that have feeling and sensation, this research is probably where all of that will have started.
One of the reasons that you can’t recover your sight from losing an eye, for example, is that we cannot integrate your optical nerve into a replacement, artificial, eye. If in the future we can figure out how to do that, then it could be revolutionary for blind people. This might be a comedy story today, but the potential for future development is genuinely exciting.
Then of course, there are the military applications, which will obviously get the most funding. Theoretically, if you can integrate living tissue into a machine, you can do lots of things that have always been unimaginable. Why not have functional, flappable wings, for example, so that people can fly? If it sounds mad, that’s because it is mad. But it’s probably more possible today than it was last week.
There are ethical implications, of course, most especially around the use of embryonic stem cells, which involve the functional destruction of a unique human embryo in order to extract cells. But most stem cell research these days is adult stem cell stuff, which has many fewer ethical problems. And for this kind of thing, that’s probably what you’re looking at.
The question that nobody can answer, obviously, is what these frog creatures are thinking, or whether they are aware at all that they are supposed to be frogs. These are not existing frogs that have been transformed, but frogs that have been artificially grown to meld with a machine. Whether they have any consciousness at all is unclear. If they do, there are obviously ethical implications there too – creating a being deliberately in a way that might make its whole life a misery isn’t the kindest thing to do.
We are, in all likelihood, decades from any of this meaning anything of significance. It’s just a tiny first step down a particular path. It could end up going nowhere.
But it could, in the end, be the beginning of a very significant technological development for humanity.
Something to keep an eye on.