Stem cells naturally reproduce themselves. The researchers working with frog stem cells merely found, via algorithms, one configuration that works better:
Recently, the sci-fi dream of self-replicating robots has been in the news, thanks to the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. A recent experiment with frog cells was hailed by news outlets as disparate as CNN (“World’s first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say”) and Daily Wire (“American Universities Create First ‘Self-Replicating Living Robots’”). And it was also debunked by Ars Technica: (“Interesting research, but no, we don’t have living, reproducing robots”).
So what’s really happening?
Self-replication is a very tricky problem of information. To truly self-replicate, an organism must completely copy the information necessary for function. Seems simple enough but it introduces a conundrum. For the organism to copy its information, it must also copy the ability to copy its information. Solving this problem of self-reference is very difficult.
The easiest realm in which we can solve the problem of self-reproduction so far is computer code. John von Neumann (1903–1957), one of the inventors of the modern computer, designed a self-replicator known as the Von Neumann Universal Constructor. The Constructor is a genius piece of insight, anticipating the discovery of naturally self-reproducing code in DNA.
However, this is not the same scenario with the xenobots that are making the news. They are robots in only the loosest sense of the word. The term “robot” refers to a complex mechanical and computational entity that engineers have carefully crafted. These xenobots are actually stem cells from an African frog (Xenopus laevis):Eric Holloway, “Is the age of the living, self-replicating robot at hand? No.” at Mind Matters News (December 1, 2021)
Takehome: Calling these stem cells “self-reproducing robots” is like saying that humans create catbots when a pet cat produces a litter of kittens.
You may also wish to read: Ars Technica slams claims re living, reproducing robots At Ars Technica: 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.