Robotic technologies have advanced significantly in recent years, with prototype machines now able to approximate human and animal movement and behavior in uncanny ways. More than 20 years ago, Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World (Basic Books, 1995), wrote, “The apparent veil between the organic and the manufactured has crumpled to reveal that the two really are, and have always been, of one being.” Decades later, not only are machines becoming more like living organisms, but biology is becoming more engineered. The next generation of robots could prove Kelly right.

Kelly’s prediction is profoundly evident in the creation of the world’s first living robots, or xenobots, which are composed of living cells from frog embryos. Researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Tufts University collaborated on these newly engineered life forms, which they initially designed on a supercomputer and then brought to life using incubated stem cells. Their potential applications include cleaning up ocean contaminants and removing arterial plaque. The xenobots are “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” according to UVM scientist Joshua Bongard. “It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”