Robotic technologies have advanced significantly in recent years, with prototype machines now able to approximate human and animal movement and behavior in uncanny ways. More than 20 years ago, Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World (Basic Books, 1995), wrote, “The apparent veil between the organic and the manufactured has crumpled to reveal that the two really are, and have always been, of one being.” Decades later, not only are machines becoming more like living organisms, but biology is becoming more engineered. The next generation of robots could prove Kelly right.

Kelly’s prediction is profoundly evident in the creation of the world’s first living robots, or xenobots, which are composed of living cells from frog embryos. Researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Tufts University collaborated on these newly engineered life forms, which they initially designed on a supercomputer and then brought to life using incubated stem cells. Their potential applications include cleaning up ocean contaminants and removing arterial plaque. The xenobots are “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” according to UVM scientist Joshua Bongard. “It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism."

Engineers at MIT have similarly utilized biological materials to create human-like organs in devising a bionic heart, created by merging preserved heart tissue with a synthetic matrix. The resulting, Frankenstein-esque, “biorobotic hybrid heart” muscle functions just like the original—though separated from a human body—enabling scientists to study various cardiac interventions with enhanced accuracy.

Courtesy Cornell University

Another contribution to soft robotics is a muscle capable of self-regulating its temperature through perspiring like human skin. Scientists at Cornell University 3D printed nanopolymer materials that retain water and react to temperature changes. They then fabricated the materials into the form of a human hand. The robot’s self-cooling process operates three times more efficiently than a human sweating—and six times more efficiently when ventilated by an external fan.

Another robotic trend represents the merger of the biological and mechanical—at the level of the individual organism. Scientists have been developing approaches to augment living creatures with cybernetic capabilities, beginning with pervasive species. For example, Stanford University and California Institute of Technology researchers recently created cyborg jellyfish with the introduction of a small prosthetic that enhances swimming. The microelectronic controller introduces electrical pulses that accelerate the organism’s natural movement, enabling a three-fold increase in swimming speed and two-fold in its efficiency. According to a Caltech press release, this kind of cybernetic enhancement symbolizes a “middle ground” between two typical trajectories of bioinspired robotics—one focused purely on mechanical systems and the other on biological ones.

This work follows on the heels of research by North Carolina State University scientists, who created cyborg cockroaches in 2017. Recognizing the limits to machine-based approaches to developing sufficiently agile and nimble robots, the researchers decided to outfit live cockroaches with electronic interfaces instead. A microchip “backpack” with a wireless receiver, transmitter, and implanted electrodes enable scientists to control a roach’s movement remotely. ONe intended application is post-disaster emergency response, given that the cockroach cyborgs could be effective in navigating the confined spaces of a collapsed building for survivors.

Another cybernetic project subverts the integrity of the intact organism. Researchers at Japan’s Riken Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research have created what they claim is the first microchip valve that functions using living cells. The scientists developed the biologically powered micromechanical system approach using earthworm muscle tissue. Not only does the living material function without an external power source, but it also offers improved performance over conventional electronic valves.

The increased convergence of biology and human technologies is not only both fascinating and bizarre, but it also points to a future where prior assumptions about the mismatch between life and machines are undermined. in our book Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015), co-author Marc Swackhamer and I argue, “The ultimate aim of technology is not antinatural; it is hypernatural. . It involves working directly with natural forces and processes—rather than against them—in order to amplify, extend, or exceed natural capacities.” Examples like cybernetic jellyfish with enhanced speed and efficiency certainly reinforce this claim. However, such research raises profound ethical and moral questions about how to treat life justly and responsibly. (The scientists claim that the jellyfish experience no undue stress in this instance.)

Architecture is already leveraging living systems—such as microalgae-infused façades or mycelium-reinforced insulation—and the trend is likely to grow. Therefore, the profession's knowledge of biotechnical advances and the related ethical dimensions will prepare us to be better caretakers of life within the designed environment.