Scientists on Monday announced that they’d optimized a way of getting mobile clusters of cells to organize other cells into smaller clusters that, under the right conditions, could be mobile themselves. The researchers call this process “kinematic self-replication,” although that’s not entirely right—the copies need help from humans to start moving on their own, are smaller than the originals, and the copying process grinds to a halt after just a couple of cycles.
So, of course, CNN headlined its coverage “World’s first living robots can now reproduce.”
This is a case when something genuinely interesting is going on, but both the scientists and some of the coverage of the developments are promoting it as far more than it actually is. So, let’s take a look at what has really been done.John Timmer, “Interesting research, but no, we don’t have living, reproducing robots” at Ars Technica (November 30, 2021)
We’ll let Timmer tell it:
This is reasonably interesting work, but the researchers involved are a bit excessive in their presentation of it. They call it a “form of perpetuation” that’s “previously unseen in any organism.” Well, yes. It’s not seen in any organisms because it’s not actually a form of perpetuation, since it doesn’t work for more than two generations, much less in perpetuity. And it’s hard to imagine a way of evolving the conditions the humans had to provide here—notably two different culture dishes filled with dissociated cells…
On its own, some aspects of this work are nifty. The researchers used an algorithm to identify a way they could transform a set of odd biological phenomena into the equivalent of an assembly line robot with a finite lifespan. Which is pretty clever.
But the paper buried this in language that, at best, is overhyped, and the researchers aren’t even being technically accurate when describing this work to the press. At a time when trust in science seems to be at an all-time low, this isn’t likely to be helpful.John Timmer, “Interesting research, but no, we don’t have living, reproducing robots” at Ars Technica (November 30, 2021)
The problem is, what kind of “trust” is it? Trust in the face of obvious hype, contradiction, obfuscation, conflicting interests, and persecution of dissenters who offer embarrassing but correct information is usually a superstitious trust: That is, trust that all will be well if we just blindly follow these rules… rules whose relationship to the facts of the case is forever conveniently obscure.
The people who lose trust in science as a result of repeated blows tend to be more intelligently skeptical to begin with. And those are the ones you would want on your side.