Thursday, January 23, 2020

Anticipating Androids

In Mary Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein apparently constructed his creature by stitching together parts of cadavers. (His first-person narrative stays vague on the details.) Considering the rapid decay of dead flesh as well as the problem of reanimating such a construct, if we ever get organic androids or, as they're called in Dungeons and Dragons, flesh golems, they're more likely to be created by a method similar to this: Robotics experts at the University of Vermont have designed living robots made from frog cells, which were constructed and tested by biologists at Tufts University:


They're made of living cells derived from frog embryos. Joshua Bongard, one of the researchers on this project, describes the xenobots as "a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism." The frog cells "can be coaxed to make interesting living forms that are completely different from what their default anatomy would be." Only a millimeter wide, they potentially "can move toward a target, perhaps pick up a payload (like a medicine that needs to be carried to a specific place inside a patient)—and heal themselves after being cut." They might also be able to perform such tasks as cleaning up radioactive materials and other contaminants or scraping plaque out of arteries. While this process doesn't amount to creating life, because it works with already living cells, it does reconfigure living organisms into novel forms. Although there's no hint of plans to build larger, more complicated artificial organisms, the article doesn't say that's impossible, either.

If an android constructed by this method could be made as complex as a human being, could it ever have intelligence? In an experiment I think I've blogged about in the past, scientists at the University of California, San Diego have grown cerebral "organoids"—miniature brains—from stem cells:

Lab-Grown Mini-Brains

These mini-brains, about the size of a pea, can "mimic the neural activity" of a pre-term fetus. Researchers hope these organoids can be used to study brain disorders and perhaps to replace lost or damaged areas of living human brains. At present, they can't think or feel. But suppose they're eventually grown large and complex enough to—maybe—develop sentience or even consciousness? In that case, it could be reasonably argued that they should have individual rights. The "disembodied brain in a jar" that's a familiar trope of SF and horror, is, according to the article, a highly unlikely outcome of this research. If these miniaturized brains ever became complex enough to transplant into a more highly developed version of the frog-cell "xenobots," however, the question of personhood would surely arise.

Margaret L. Carter

Margaret L. Carter

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