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Birds do it, bees do it, even xenobotic frogs do it


“You see things, and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?’”

Back to Methuselah

George Bernard Shaw (1949)

“Some men see things as they are, and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and say, ‘Why not?’”

Presidential campaign

Robert F. Kennedy (1968)

“I see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ You wanna know ‘Why not?’ Because no … just no … no way, no how … no … that’s why not.”

Get Off My Lawn

Yours truly (2021)

Robots can now reproduce.

No … get your mind out of the gutter. We are not talking about the natural evolution of those creepier-than-all-get-out sexbots. (Yes, they exist and no, “Why now?” is not an acceptable reason.)

Rather, the reproduction at hand involves what scientists call “xenobots” — a programmable organism that, in this case was developed in a petri dish using stem cells taken from an African clawed frog.

Now, back in high school, Sue Benoit and I got detention for laughing a bit too loud in Mr. Des Roches’s science class as we were dissecting good ol’, clawless American pond frogs.

But never in a million years did we, or Mr. Des Roches, think that frog xenobots would busy themselves collecting stray cells like an army of Pac-Men — or those robots you might have vacuuming your floors — and reshaping into frog xenobot replicants.

Again … just no.

The concept of “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it” is basic in both evolution and religion, in that the contract of temptation carried with it the small print of unintended consequence.

The Shaw quote above, after all, is said by the serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The scientists involved in this discovery cite the potential to program these living robots — which, as of yet, don’t have brain functions — to have beneficial use, for instance, in medicine and climatology.

And, fair enough, African clawed frog xenobot “offspring” (yes, they are called that) take five days to be born — so they aren’t exactly reproducing at the speed of Tribbles, which are basically born pregnant.

But if you’re of the mind that there’s a chasm of difference between frog stem cells and circuit boards, well …

“The distinction between a robot and an organism is not nearly as sharp as we used to think it was,” Tufts University biology professor Michael Levin told National Public Radio. “These creatures, they have properties of both.”

I’ve seen this movie before … and I didn’t like the ending. Even in the eventual director’s cut.

Back in the world of good old nuts and bolts wizardry, the British tech company Engineered Arts is making strides in reproducing humanity with its recent unveiling Ameca, which is billed as “the perfect humanoid robot platform for human-robot interaction.”

(No, I told you, not that kind of interaction.)

Ameca — which only a paranoid cynic would suggest is just an “ri” away from a political statement — can smile, blink, gasp, scratch its nose and stare at you until it shatters the protective shell-casing of your soul.

Now, before folks start going full-on Birds Aren’t Real out there, consider that Engineered Arts is promoting Ame__ca as just a showstopper of a party trick to rent to impress the Joneses … and not as some incremental step toward Stepfordizing the neighborhood.

Wait … Birds Aren’t WHAT???

Yes, you see there is a movement out there which has put forth the notion that the United States has secretly replace all birds with Folger’s crystals … err, with spy-cam robots that would have the side benefit of eliminating bird-droppings.

(Sometimes I really wish I was making this stuff up.)

And just because engineers at Stanford have created a “grasping robot” with feet and legs mimicking a peregrine falcon that can perch on a branch and grasp objects doesn’t mean that life is about to imitate performance art.

At least, not yet. For one thing, Stanford’s robot bird was built without a head.

There are, of course, ethical questions — and mortal fears — aplenty leaping from all this.

Imagine, for example, if some nefarious “Boys from Brazil”-type villain created an army of brainless, programmable organisms by introducing cable news ... err, stimuli ... into their petri dishes that led to the ascension of Frog Xenobot Overlords that would multiply and take over the world.

I have seen the dreams of the way things could be ... and it has given me nightmares.

Paranoid cynics need not apply to rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com. We’re fully stocked.