The Latest Human Interface Design Revolves Around Sentience
Biology is all around us. It’s the tides, the moon, plants, animals, the earth, our minds, how we interact. It’s beyond just being everywhere. From a carnal perspective, it’s everything. You can’t envision the future, happiness, or any optimal or even suboptimal situation without biology being involved.
It’s beyond everywhere. In every crevice of our lives we’re subjected to the sublime and fundamental nature of biology and its constructs. Beyond biology is our consciousness, and how we’re constantly developing as humans — homo sapiens are looking to build out better and more practical systems that will ensure that our species thrives for multiple years to come.
As humans, we do everything in our power to survive by developing interfaces, new methods of interaction and ingenuity that foster our capability to live comfortably. Taking that concept further, we develop human interfaces, or convenient methods to connect and dissociate a variety of different objects, or communicate in ways that are mutually comprehensive, but aren’t naturally available to us.
Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at developing human interfaces, which has led us to the precipice of our interface evolution, a point at which we begin to pioneer products that will completely change the way we interact on a fundamental level, making it more powerful and immersive. Some of the technologies many people believe will kickstart this change are brain-computer interfaces (a project I’m working on is an example of this), haptic technology, and XR (extended reality: the intersection of augmented and virtual reality).
Much of the general ideology is that the next step in interface evolution would be connecting people and electrical parts on a deeper level, creating virtual worlds that are stimulated by our brains, communicating semi-telepathically, or feeling the world at our fingertips through vibrations. Some people even believe the next candidate for social interaction is with humanoid robots, or androids, like Hanson Robotics’ android ensemble, or Immervisions new pilot.
However, I still maintain that this viewpoint is too near-sighted. While yes, these are exciting and promising ways to engage with one another, they’re too mutually exclusive in practice.
Instead, why don’t we take the one principle that interlaces every aspect of our lives, and everything around us: biology. You see, we’re constantly trying to build autonomous systems. That’s the heart of interface evolution, and human-mimicking robotics, and advanced artificial intelligence systems have been the proximate effort to doing so. So what if, instead of waiting for that solution to happen, we begin developing it.
This intersection of engineering and biology is called synthetic biology. And yes, not bioengineering, but synthetic biology. Bioengineering is the academic disciplines collating the principles from two research and development intensive fields. Synthetic Biology is the realization of that academia into practical application.
At the root of biology is stem cells, and at the root of interfaces are robotics. So, where do we go from here?
Building a Novel Interface
Fabricating an entirely new biological interface will require the development of a brand new life form. If you want to learn more or understand how synthetic biology and vita-engineering works (might I add, in only 20 minutes), read the article below:
The Next Phase of Biological Evolution is being Engineered…by People
A look into the future of laboratory work.
Assuming you get the basics, let’s jump into it.
Researchers are currently gazing through a microscope, excitedly poking their eyes through the apparatus to see tiny little globules navigating around a petri dish. At first, there’s a skidding marshmallow cloud in a glistening solution, crawling its way around the surface, attempting to organize small particles of plastic nearby. It does well, and its companions are also participating in the same task, communicating through a network, and all the differently shaped globs are working together on different jobs to eventually collect all of the substance in the plate.
All of a sudden, one of the masses gets cut, but then, to the researchers zeal, it begins to reconstitute and heal back into it’s original form. What are these beings? Sentient, efficient, sturdy, and undistracted. They sound like the optimal interface, and they are.
It turns out that it’s this little amphibian that’s to the researcher’s marvel. Maybe you already have an idea of why an African Clawed Frog now looks like a microscopic living marshmallow cloud, but maybe not…
What comes to mind when you see this tiny amphibian? Perhaps fear, a slimy feeling, or its ballooning throat, or maybe the strong legs, characteristic leap, and protruding stare. It doesn’t matter. This froggy creature marks the beginning of the development of the latest biological interface, and it’s the source of the marshmallow-ish wonders.
For the researchers gazing into the microscope, they don’t see what most people see. They see the latest developments in cell technology, a new bio-robotic interface, and perhaps, an interesting and cute organic creature (or maybe they don’t think its so cute. idk). That’s a lot from a tiny frog.
But before we go any further, let’s meet the researchers who see years of research and genetic potential in an African amphibian.
As I had mentioned before, the nexus of biology is oftentimes considered the stem cell. Is the progenitor of all other differentiated cell types, and represents most of how life is born and reproduced, and even how we as humans constitute, and how many amphibians, like amphibians, have autotomy.
Then, we know that the core of interface development is robotics. So, why not create the world’s first biological robot? Well, its not an easy task, but these 4 amazing scientists tried to do just that, and succeeded, to an extent. They developed the aptly named Xenobot, a biological robot made from heart and skin stem cells harvested from the embryo of the Xenopus Laevis.
The team of four leveraged evolutionary computation techniques to develop a stable xenobot model. Because they were using very sensitive stem cells, they were preserved and cultivated using growth media, and then held until the AI model decided which shapes would allow for optimal configuration. The evolutionary computational model was run on a supercomputer, and it was basically like the ultimate form of guess and check.
An evolutionary algorithm is a Darwinian-inspired AI model that draws it’s computational function from the principle of natural selection, where only the “fittest” configuration of beating heart cells and the frog skin cells were passed to the next stability test to determine whether or not the shape would be viable. Evolutionary algorithms come in many forms, the most popular of which is the genetic algorithm, and you can find a research paper I wrote on it here, if you want to learn more about them.
Heart and skin cells were specifically differentiated into the constituents for the xenobots for locomotion, intelligence, and network activity. Because the heart cells are beating, the xenobot is technically able to move by pushing itself through space with each heartbeat. Beyond that, the Xenobots also have healing properties thanks to their cellular origins. The nature of sticking together passive and contractive cells created a new type of programmable robot that doesn’t require nuts, bolts, and electricity, and instead uses nutrients, cells, and elastic motion.
Due to cells being very high-maintenance, though, after the shapes are made by the AI, the researchers had to painstakingly fabricate the different Xenobots, and different orientations caused each Xenobot to have a different function that correspond with the optimal structure of their generated shape.
Xenobots are known to have a variety of functions, as the evolutionary algorithm is able to output so many different shapes that could possibility be leveraged for designing the robots. They have been able to organize different piles of substances, move along designated pathways, collectively communicate in very weird, and ultimately just cause us to ask more questions. It’s not that a the frog’s cells were super special, it was their collective intelligence and behavior that came off as a cryptic research question for the team of 4
Oftentimes, they just do random things based on their shapes. Two Xenobots sometimes join together as friends, while another donut-like xenobot lets its gaping hole pick up different tiny objects. Multiple xenobots can also coordinate to manipulate different substances.
According to Dr. Levin, “They change their movement from time to time, so they will move in a particular way, then they’ll change it, then they’ll turn around and go back.” Correlating the designing with the biological principle, there’s a lot to be understood when it comes to how the cells are managing to communicate and coordinate their behavior, anyway.
The shape and behavior is also what allows the xenobots to self repair if they’re torn into. Just like how in synbio we’re after the source code of life, DNA, these researchers are trying to understand the language of cells, and figure out a way to control it computationally, which would have implications in so many different areas, as well as a host of unique applications in automation and evolution.
The xenobots aren’t just limited to these 5, there are a whole host of possibilities that have been concluded by the (super)computational algorithms that are being played with:
There is so much potential that’s available, in both research and application. These microscale organisms can live for days, and boast some amazing features.
A Broader Scope on Xeno-robotics
Ultimately, Xenobots are presenting a really important scope of research and interest into how cells function and communicate. They represent the beginning of an advent of technological advancement in computation and its intersection in biology. Right now, researchers at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts are investigation the broader viewpoint of Xenobots as an entirely new organism!
They were descibed as novel living machines.
Xenobots may also have applications in clearing microplastics in the ocean, or performing microsurgeries in hospitals. I was even thinking about an application to have a colony of xenobots eat tumors! However, Xeno-robotics is still in its nascent stage. There are many ethical concerns surrounding creating a new lifeform, from biological warfare, to malfunctions, to human rights. For now though, they’re a great start to an important conversation, and a beyond adequate proof-of-concept for where the future of interface evolution is headed!
Before you go…
Thanks so much for being curious and actually reading through this article. It was a lot of fun to make, research, and develop, so I’m glad you made it through. For more on Xenobots and biotech, read my Medium, and/or check out Dr. Kreigman, Blackiston, Levin, or Bongard, and this article. If you’re any of these researchers, or affiliated with this research, I would love to engage with you further, and feel free to fact check this article even more! If not, I would still love to talk and I hope you enjoyed this article.
My name’s Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any biology or computer science. Check out my socials here, or contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I write something new every day/week, so I hope to see you again soon! Make sure you comment, and leave some claps on this too — especially if you liked it! I sure enjoyed writing it!
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