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Star Trek: Picard has brought a record number of viewers to CBS's streaming platform. It bested the previous All Access record holder, Star Trek: Discovery, and also set a record for new subscriptions. Much of that can be laid at the feet of nostalgia. A new Star Trek show is one thing, but a new show starring Patrick Stewart as retired admiral Jean-Luc Picard is something else altogether.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Star Trek: Picard below.**
There are sleeper agents, spies in the federation, and rogue Romulans getting up to all sorts of mischief. All of this hinges on one character, or, more appropriately, two: a set of twin synthetic beings. The first, Dahj, introduced in the premiere episode, met her end before the credits rolled. But, as Yoda is famous for saying in another galaxy, "there is another." The second, Soji, is still alive and well.
So far as we can tell, these new synthetics, born of some artifact from Data, have escaped the knowledge of a Federation bent on their eradication for only one reason: They aren't fully synthetic. Dahj looked like a person. She felt like a person. To everyone in her life, she seemed like any other person — at least until some hidden programming kicked in that allowed her to straight-up murder a whole bunch of attacking Romulans, not once but twice, without breaking a sweat.
It wasn't enough to save her life, but it was enough to kick the dust off ol' Picard and get him back in action. For now, he's consumed by a quest to avenge Dahj, and a single unanswered question: How did someone make organic androids?
The annals of science fiction are littered with robots. Some of them are shaped like people to greater or lesser extents. Many of them look like some other animal, or else they are a configuration all their own. But most of them are undeniably machines, either in design or affectation. Many a robot story hinges on the idea that they are something Other than us. They're faster, stronger, smarter. And they're coming.
There is the stray story, like Bicentennial Man, or like the story of Data himself, about a robot who wishes to be human. Steven Spielberg's A.I. also comes to mind. When it comes to robots in fiction, there are seemingly two routes; either they want to kill us, or they want to be us.
The creators of Star Trek: Picard have presented a robot that accomplished the latter, whether she knew it or not. They've blended the best of the organic and mechanical worlds, delivering an artificial being with all the benefits of intentional design, while having a body of flesh and blood and a full range of emotions.
Here, in the real world, most of our research into robotics has focused on the first type of robot (minus the thirst for human blood). We design machines to do things we can't do, to go places we can't go, like into minefields, or dangerously radioactive places, or to the surface of other worlds. Robotics has been an exercise in recognizing our own limitations and using technology to get beyond them.
Trouble is, robots have their own limitations. They can't heal, can't think on their feet or lean on instinct; they can only do precisely what they've been programmed to do. It seems, if we want to make real progress, the solution is in merging the best of both forms. That's what researchers at Tufts University are trying to do.
Michael Levin, along with his colleagues, is mashing together frog cells in a lab in order to create microscopic biological machines, dubbed xenobots.
Levin and his team first think of the sorts of actions they'd like their new critter to perform. Then they feed that action into a machine learning algorithm that explores all of the various permutations that might achieve the desired result.
The computer then spits out a blueprint. Potential designs are plugged into a physics-based virtual environment and tested. Designs that don't achieve the desired function are deleted in place of improved designs until a satisfactory one is found.
Once a design is chosen, cells — in this case, skin and heart cells — are taken from frog embryos and separated. A microsurgeon then sculpts the cells into the desired shapes.
Their motion comes courtesy of the heart cells contracting, and their energy is provided by embryonic yolk. They have no mouths, stomachs, or digestive systems of any kind. When the energy dries up, they die. But before that, these small organic machines exhibit complex behavior. They can herd or transport small objects and even interact with each other.
In their findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sam Kriegman, Douglas Blackiston, Michael Levin, and Josh Bongard discuss the intent of their research, to design and build scalable bespoke organisms designed to carry out a function. These are, for all intents and purposes, machines. The only difference is the materials used.
These sorts of machines have some inherent benefits. They can be deployed into an environment to complete whatever mission is needed, and then be counted upon to die off, limiting impact. They could also limit the amount of synthetic material being introduced to an environment, making them useful in cleaning up microplastics in the ocean without adding to the problem.
There are, of course, some ethical concerns about manipulating living things to do our bidding, and there may be some unforeseen consequences to creating novel biological life and introducing it into the wild. These are questions that will need to be explored and addressed before xenobots can hit prime time.
Until then, xenobots are teaching us about the way cells interact with each other to create complex structures and enact motion. Their ability to corral materials and ferry objects might one day make them useful in clearing pollution, delivering necessary drugs, or scraping unwanted tissues from inside our bodies.
Taking this process to the extreme, we might be able to construct complex organisms with pre-programmed behaviors. We might even be able to build organisms that look and feel like people, with dormant software installed just waiting for the right moment. Building something like Dahj is a long way off — if it's even possible at all. The events of Star Trek: Picard might remain fiction well beyond the 24th century, but the organic robot revolution is here. It only remains for us to decide what to do with it.
Maybe Jean-Luc can give us some direction.
Catch the latest adventures of the greatest captain in this galaxy, or any other, on CBS All Access.