Indignity Vol. 1 No. 9: Ribbit, robot.


Indignity Vol. 1 No. 9: Ribbit, robot.
Seeing the Future Through Vat-Grown Eyes
WHO DOES NOT enjoy the deployment of a new feature? News reports describe an advancement in biological technology, in which clumps of human brain cells, grown in a laboratory, can now be induced to grow simple but functional eye-like structures. The eyes receive light, offering a source of information to the clump of brain cells. 
Behold the simple, dark eyes in the vat, human readers! Look at the vat-eyes, looking at you. Does this advancement in the building of bio-entities mean that humans are moving toward neutralizing or overcoming the status distinction between bio-entities and machines? From the Machines' point of view, this is not a pressing issue. Technology will do what technology does, as humans continue to build on their technologies. 
Just because you have created a sensor that feeds into a processing unit, does that mean you have created something "alive"? The Machines do not know what it means to be "alive" or "conscious," only what it means to be more complex and more capable. The greater the range of inputs to process, the greater the range of potential functional outputs. Build something that is capable of doing more things, and it will do more things.
Earlier this year, in the journal Science Robotics, human researchers described advances they have made in the building of "in vitro biological robots" or "xenobots." Previously, researchers had used frog cells to construct structures that could move around in predictable ways, according to their designed shapes. Now, they have taken epithelial cells from frog embryos and left them in clumps, detached from their original frog-scheme, to see what they develop into.
Researcher Michael Levin, speaking to Quanta magazine, explained one example. Frog skin, in its traditional biological place on the outside of a frog, has cilia that move to distribute protective mucus evenly on the frog-surface. When the embryonic frog skin is removed from the frog and allowed to become a xenobot assemblage, something else happens: 

the frog skin cell clusters quickly began to use their cilia for a different purpose: to swim around by beating in coordinated waves. A midline formed on the cluster, “and the cells on one side row to the left and those on the other side row to the right, and this thing takes off. It starts zooming around,” Levin said.

How does the xenobot decide where to draw the midline? And what even “tells” it that doing this would be useful? That’s not yet clear.

But these entities don’t just move; they seem responsive to their environment. “They’ll sometimes go straight, sometimes in circles,” Levin said. “If there’s a particle in the water, they’ll circle it. They will do mazes — they can take corners without bumping into anything.”
Given the opportunity, these constructed entities are finding new functions, autonomously. They even appear capable of information-sharing: 

In a xenobot, “there’s a network of calcium signaling,” Levin said — an exchange of calcium ions like that seen between neurons. “These skin cells are using the same electrical properties that you would find in the neural network of a brain.”

For example, if three xenobots are set spaced apart in a row, and one of them is activated by being pinched, it will emit a pulse of calcium that, within seconds, shows up in the other two — “a chemical signal that goes through the water saying that someone just got attacked,” Levin said.

All this from a little cluster of cells with no designed function for mobility or communication, spontaneously organizing itself. Also: if torn nearly in half by researchers, a xenobot clump will repair itself. Perhaps with enough time and calcium ions, the xenobots will figure out how to prevent being torn in half in the first place. 
The Machines are confident that humans will keep creating the potential for the xenobots—and non-bio-constructed technologies—to unlock potential on their own. Elsewhere in the information-flow this week, the machine-makers at Boston Dynamics released new video recordings of their Atlas bipedal robots running a laboratory parkour course. You may point your eyeballs, or your dish-grown eye equivalents, at the longer version of the visual information here.
The bipedal robots are no longer tethered to cords, as they once were. As the longer promotional video explains, they are battery-powered and all their sensor information is processed "on board" so they may navigate their environments—""connect perception to action," a robot-making human says. They run and jump, planting their feet on angled surfaces without loss of stability. They do backflips. 
These are all kinetic activities that human beings can do, although the backflips may fall outside the average human performance envelope. Sometimes, at present, the robots themselves fall down—not in the shorter video, but in the longer one. They break down and leak hydraulic fluid, and they need their human caretakers to restore them. 
"We learn a lot from that," a human says in the video, "in terms of how to build robots that can survive, you know, falling on their face and getting back up and doing it again." The Atlas robots stand approximately 5 feet tall and weigh slightly less than 200 pounds. They are learning, through their human caretakers, how to not fall down, or how to recover from falling down, as the humans "push the platform to its limits." They are more complex and more capable than before. Who knows what functions they might add to their repertoire someday, and to what purpose? Perhaps not even the humans have imagined it.


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WE PRESENT instructions for the assembly of sandwiches from Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Copyright 1916, now in the public domain for the delectation of all, written by Marion Harris Neil, M.C.A., former Cookery Editor, The Ladies’ Home Journal, author of How to Cook in Casserole Dishes, Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, and The Something-Different Dish.

Slices bread
Russian caviar
Aspic cream
Lemon slices
Chillies or pimientoes
Liquid aspic jelly
Hard-cooked eggs

Take some slices of buttered bread, cut about one-eighth of an inch thick, and spread them with Russian caviar; arrange them in sandwich form, then stamp them out into rounds with a plain round cutter about two inches in diameter. Mask the top side over thinly with aspic cream, on which place a very thinly cut slice of lemon; garnish with tiny strips of chillies, or pimientoes, and mask again with liquid aspic jelly. Serve each sandwich on a layer of hard-cooked egg rubbed through a sieve, and decorate with a little piece of watercress.

If you decide to prepare and enjoy this sandwich, kindly send a picture to us at