Meet the Xenobots, Virtual Creatures Brought to Life

Xenobots are designed to roboticists using algorithmic evolution in computer simulations.

Joshua Sokol at The New York Times:

Xenobots with a fork- or snowplow-like appendage in the front can sweep up loose particles (in a petri dish) overnight, depositing them in a pile. Some use legs, of a sort, to shuffle around on the floor of the dish. Others swim, using beating cilia, or link up blobby appendages and circle each other a few times before heading off in separate directions….

[Researchers crafted] virtual worlds that would reward particular behaviors by the clumps of repurposed frog. Take walking: First an algorithm produced many random body designs; some just sat there, others rocked or waddled forward. Then the algorithm let the best of the walkers procreate into the next generation; from these, another generation was produced, and so on, each one improving on the best designs. Another simulation, aimed at finding designs that could carry an object, became crowded with bagel-like bodies that had evolved a central cavity to hold things."

Eventually, robots like these could “sweep ocean microplastics into a larger, collectible ball,” “deliver drugs to a specific tumor,” or “scrape plaque from the walls of our arteries…. "

“[W]hatever their intended purpose, their bodies would be designed not by an engineer but by a simulacrum of real evolution built to encourage the right behavior in the target environment.”

Ethicists see possible problems.