By programming Cyberplasm to swim toward chemicals of interest, the researchers hope to create an artificial organism capable of performing remote-sensing tasks underwater – wriggling through seaweed and sniffing out pollutants, for example, or hunting down the explosives contained in sea mines.
Some journalists have trumpeted an even more a sci-fi application: the possibility that we could let these tiny, artificial eels loose inside our veins, where they’d seek out the chemical signatures of disease. Cyberplasm could eventually be used this way, the researchers say –it just won’t be anytime soon. “People start talking about applications before you actually get it working,” says Joseph Ayers, a neurophysiologist at Northeastern University who is working on the project. “The assumption that in three years we were going to build a bio-hybrid robot and have it go out and swim through your veins is not based on the reality of what it’s like to do this research.”
The research team– which includes Frankel; Voigt; Ayers; and Vladimir Parpura, a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham – is still working to refine the robot’s individual components. The next step is to integrate all the pieces into a single, seamless machine. It could take five years to “optimise and assemble” the robot, Frankel says.
What makes Cyberplasm so exciting, Ayers says, is that it’s “high-risk research”, a difficult project with no guarantee of success. But by seeking to create an artificial organism that seamlessly merges biological and electronic parts, the team is creating an entirely new model of what a robot can be. And they’re making those plain, old moving hunks of metal look distinctly out of date.