Scientists Just Created a Cyborg Sting-Ray Made of Living Tissue

Wednesday, 10 August 2016 - 12:19PM
Weird Science
Robotics
Wednesday, 10 August 2016 - 12:19PM
Scientists Just Created a Cyborg Sting-Ray Made of Living Tissue
The cyborg revolution is upon us, although maybe in a different form than we imagined. Scientists have just built a robotic stingray—and not just a robot shaped like a stingray. It's a genuine tissue-engineered cyborg, made of synthetic materials and cells from the heart of a rat.

The cyborg is the brainchild of Kevin Kit Parker, who leads a research team at Harvard University's Disease Biophysics Group. The team has built more than 200 robotic stingrays over the past few years, which are the size of a penny and composed of silicon fins, bones made of gold, and rat heart muscle cells. Parker had the idea four years ago, and convinced postdoctoral researcher Sung-Jin Park to help him, but it apparently wasn't easy:

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"I had this whole idea of a laser-guided, tissue-engineered stingray made out of rat," Parker said in a statement. "He looked at me like a hog staring at a wristwatch. He was like, 'Have I trusted my career to this yahoo'? I think he thought I was unglued."
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And if the idea of a cyborg animal doesn't sound Terminator enough for you, it can also swim towards light. The cells that surround the synthetic materials have been genetically engineered to respond to light, so when the robot comes into contact with light, its tissue contracts, setting off a chain reaction that propels the stingray towards the light source. Even creepier, the "swimming" is more like an undulation of the body, much like a real-life stingray.



The real question is: are these "cyborgs" alive? They're definitely not sentient, but the requirements for "life" are relatively loose and ill-defined. There's not an agreed-upon definition of life, but it usually includes growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change until death. The rays can definitely move, which is functional activity, and although it's unclear whether the creatures will grow or change, they're made of living tissue, so presumably there will be some sort of evolution over time.

And they're not self-sufficient creatures, as they need to swim in a special solution of warm water, salt, and sugar to survive. They weren't designed to live outside of the lab (although it could theoretically be possible to create a circulatory system out of that solution), and would die in ocean or fresh water. But the fact that the cells can die highlights that in some sense, the rays are living (or at least parts of them are). So in true Frankenstein fashion, we might have just created life. 

For now, the robots are only meant to provide insight into the functionality of heart muscles, in order to build more efficient artificial hearts. But, as a scientist and a two-time war veteran, Parker believes that this research could be a step towards making autonomous cyborgs that can perform dangerous tasks.

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"Bio-hybrid machines-things with synthetic parts and living materials-they're going to happen," Parker said. "I've spent time getting shot at and seen people getting shot. If I could build a cyborg so my buddy doesn't have to crawl into that ditch to look for an IED, I'd do that in a heartbeat."
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