If you met this lab-created critter over your beach vacation, you'd swear you saw a baby ray. In fact, the tiny, flexible swimmer is the product of a team of diverse scientists. They have built the most successful artificial animal yet. This disruptive technology opens the door much wider for and lifelike robots artificial intelligence.
Like most disruption, it started with a simple idea. Kit Kevin Parker, PhD, a Harvard professor researching how to build a human heart, saw his daughter entranced by watching stingrays at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He wondered if he could engineer a muscle that could move in the same sinuous, undulating fashion. The quest for a material led to creating an artificial ray with a 3-D-printed rubber body at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University's Medical Center joined the team.
They reinforced the soft rubber body with a 3-D-printed gold skeleton so thin it functions like cartilage. Geneticists adapted rat heart cells so they could respond to light by contracting. Then, they were grown in a carefully arranged pattern on the rubber and around the gold skeleton.
The muscular circuitry is one of the most interesting parts of the research, and there's more about it in this video:
The birth of biohybrid beings
The new engineered animal responds to light so well scientists were able to guide it through an obstacle course 15 times its length using strong and weak light pulses.
The study authors write, "Our ray outperformed existing locomotive biohybrid systems in terms of speed, distance traveled, and durability (six days), demonstrating the potential of self-propelled, phototactically activated tissue-engineered robots."
What biohybrid mean for robots and artificial intelligence
Science of this type is fundamental for engineering special-purpose creations such as artificial worms that sniff out and eat cancer. Or bionic body parts for those who have suffered accidents or disease. Imagine having little swimmers in your system that rush to the site of a medical emergency such as a stroke. The promise of sensor-rich soft tissue frees robots to move more easily and yet not be cut off from needed input. Sensitized robot soft tissue could perform without the energy-sucking heaviness of metal or the artificial barrier of hard-plastic exoskeletons.
Thanks to disruptive, cross-disciplinary applied science like this, entrepreneurs in the next few years will be able to play on the border of what life is, what alive means, and what life can be. Expect to see companies use biohybrid beings to commercialize applications that solve some of the largest, and most lucrative, challenges we face today.