Is The New Stingray Robot Actually A Living Being?

Admin | Published 2016-07-20 20:02
  If you make a robot out of living cells and it can respond to external stimuli, is it a living being then? This question can be posed of a new, tiny stingray-inspired robot that is able to follow pulses of light to swim through an obstacle course.   “It’s not an organism per se, but it’s certainly alive,” said Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University and one of the authors of a paper detailing the robot, published in Science on Thursday.

To create the robot, which measures 16 millimeters in length, Dr. Parker’s team layered heart cells from rats onto a gold and silicone scaffold that they designed to resemble a stingray. They then injected a gene into the cells that caused them to contract when exposed to blue light.

 By shining pulses of blue light, the researchers were able to control the robot’s movements. Flashing the light more rapidly caused the robot to swim faster. Blinking the light on the robot’s right side caused it to turn left, and vice versa.
Using these techniques, the engineers navigated the robot along a curving obstacle course at an average speed of 1.5 millimeters per second.

The new artificial stingray advances the nascent field of “biohybrid” robotics, which integrates mechanical engineering with genetic and tissue engineering, said Rashid Bashir, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Earlier this spring, his research group built a similar light-controlled robot that crawls rather than swims.

Among other applications, this work could lead to the development of robots that aid in environmental cleanups or cargo transport, added Dr. Bashir, who was not involved in building the stingray robot.

Dr. Parker, meanwhile, is most interested in what the robot can teach him about the human heart.

By studying how rat heart cells work together to propel the robot forward, he hopes to gain insight into how heart cells communicate with each other and generate force.

He also plans to apply this research to the development of a light-activated pacemaker, which would involve injecting the light-sensitive gene into heart tissue so the organ can be controlled with pulses of light.

Using light to pace the heart would “be a change for the whole medical device industry,” he said.

source - nytimes.com

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