16 May, 2022

Biobots And Plastic Recovery


Actually, This Biobot Video May Be The Greatest Thing Ever

The Next Big Thing In Plastic Recovery?

This video shows that RCX-AU may already be outdated, superseded by our ever-advancing technology. Here's what appears to be a fledgling field of biotechnology making organic robots which are for now quite limited, but can round up material, follow paths surprisingly well, or are able to be controlled by external stimuli. 

The bot above is shown (in the video I linked above) pushing an accumulation of stuff in an anticlockwise direction. There's the video of a swarm of them making little piles and donuts of stuff. 

BONUS: If the 'stuff' happens to be a heap of the same kinds of cells as the biobots are composed of, the piles seem to be able to form themselves into copies of the biobot. Not quite birth, but spontaneous automatic self-assembly. 

Their inventors have also given them a 'single-bit memory' that currently causes them to change colour if they encounter particular chemicals, but it's a fair certainty that the scientists will find other useful functions for them to fulfill. I'm not entirely sure it'll be possible but maybe if they throw some biochem AI at it they might find some really interesting uses for biobots:

  1. If it can be made selective enough, how about 'bots that turn a particular colour if they bump up against a particular type of plastic like, oh let's say microparticles of PET, HDPE, PP, or PVC? That way a customised batch of bots can be released over an area to highlight all that 'forever' PET by turning orange. Another batch can turn blue in the presence of HDPE, and so on. This kind of precise indication would be important because HDPE is an eminently recyclable plastic. 
  2. Just for laughs, that software the people in the video used to design their critters might be able to come up with a design that pushes until the detector protein activates and then close up around or at least attached to the particle as well as marking what type it is by their colour. 
  3. If the biobot could also swell when triggered then it would become less dense and float the particle up in a water environment. (Think Pacific Garbage Patch/Gyre)

I say they might find such uses but I'm actually pretty sure that these kinds of things will be reasonably simple with the application of AI to do the biochem scutwork. That's the kind of thing AI excels at, running millions of combinations and iterations, and it's being used to discover potential drug candidates, evolve other AI software, and iterate over physical designs just like the program that currently designs the biobot shapes.

Scaling Up

The next issue I can think of is production of useful quantities of such biobots because at present this work is done by human researchers manually following the software's guidance. What's needed is a lot of tiny micromanipulators that function a bit like our currently available telepresence surgical robots.

TP surgical robots can be operated by a human or a medical surgery program. Scale it right down and strip it down to just the few functions needed for snipping and shaping cells and you can feed the code for a particular 'bot into it over and over. 

Let one surgical program control a dozen or more tiny telesurgery bots and you can start to mass-produce biobots to order. With specific properties to collect specific materials and tag them. 

And for really fast development, the AI that designs the biobots could send the code to a picosurgery unit, have a series of biobots pumped out, and it could even evaluate its own accuracy by using computer vision to observe the products in action, adjust its own algorithms, and so forth. Once you have a design that does what you want, you send that code to a mass-production minifactory.

You can see where that's going, right? Free the scientists to just deciding on useful missions for biobots, let the AI find solutions, let the minifactories generate a batch of specialised biobots. And - just like 3D printers - these minifactories are initially going to be a bit specialised and require laboratory conditions but we develop things fast with the tech we have at our fingertips already.

So it won't be long before it's small and portable enough to be installed on a ship in the Great Garbage Patch and churn out biobots for identifying plastics from near the seafloor, identify what type, and float thew marked particles of it to the surface, and the ship can just skim particular-coloured scum, remove moisture from it, and fill containers with the lovely recyclable plastic. 

A supply vessel would bring out raw materials, rotate shift crews, and take back lots of containers full of lovely recoverable plastic that only needs the biobots washed off it. And old biobots would be a good ingredient in compost or liquefied to make oil or be burned to biochar yielding energy in the process.

Of course you don't need the whole AI setup out on the barge, just the code to make the biobots. And updates to that code can be sent over satellite, mobile network, USB stick, or even radio. New designs could be disseminated in minutes. 

One downside I can immediately think of is to keep active biobots away from pigs - just in case we end up with a 'grey goo' situation in piggeries. And of course there are also nanobots that are made with human muscle tissue as the primary movement element. Luckily there seem to be no recorded attempts to build a new human but the whole grey goo style scenarios will need to be checked for and eliminated.

(Okay - I admit that's a touch far-fetched perhaps, but despite me being an enthusiastic supporter of using clean tech to fix the planet's issues, I am also looking at other possibilities - I for one would prefer to survive, un-gooed. . .)

I'm not saying there's any danger but it always pays to check check and check again, we have a long history of doing half-assed things like introducing rabbits, foxes, and cane toads into a pristine environment... In the current situation, in fact, we have a perfect example of this - for decades we've just gone ahead and made plastic the indispensable cornerstone of industry and commerce, and oh dear - no-one thought about microplastic bits and those near-immortal - yet so eminently disposable - PET drink bottles.

The point is that as I said in the article AI Is Changing The World already, technology and AI are already changing the world, and one useful way they are able to do that is accelerating the speed at which we can go from an idea to turning out finished products in record time. This is especially useful if that technology is useful for cleaning up the environment or eliminating some other dirty technology - and is cleaner than the stuff it's cleaning up.

And one of the best ways AI and this new biotechnology could be applied right now is to the waste problem. For instance - sorting waste into specified categories is currently achieved by a combination of mechanical and human methods and is still far from producing perfect pure stockpiles of recyclable materials. 

But a band of plucky young nano-bio-bots could change all that. Using AI and technology to do the widespread yet tiny scale tasks of finding waste in the wild, corraling it up, sorting it, and bringing it to central waste recovery / recycling facilities is something we have the capabilities right now to achieve. No ifs or buts, these aims are rapidly attainable given a willingness to finance and support them. 

One More - IMPORTANT - Thing To Consider

The Great Garbage Patches in the ocean whirlpools known as the Gyres have been shown to be a bit problematic all of a sudden. Life, it turns out, fills niches - even niches we know next to nothing about even though we literally created them - really quickly. 

The Gyres are apparently teeming with life that's using them as a habitat, and that life has just made itself at home among the garbage. 

It's now becoming a bit of a Catch-22 irony. Clean up all that plastic - and risk scooping up all the neuton (the name for all this microscopic and tiny lifeforms as a group) as bycatch and doing to neuton pretty much as megatrawlers do to larger marine life... 

The article admits that we know very little about these tiny food sources for the larger fish life, but I imagine that before the plastic filled these gyres, they'd have been packed with rafts of neuton, probably not ever seen before as a) they wouldn't be on any major routes and b) quite likely not very visible, possibly even floating mostly under the surface.

And now that we've seen that these gyres are chock full of plastic trash, it's not hard to imagine that this may be one reason the ocean fish stocks are collapsing so quickly - plastic (being light and bulky) displacing neuton and thus depleting an important food resource for the oceans. At least, that makes a lot of sense to me. What do you think? Feel free to use the Contact Me details in the footer.

Once again, even here I imagine these microbiobots could prove helpful IF they can be developed into something that can isolate the plastics only for scooping up. If they could be made to slowly form very large clumps, then those could be harvested with minimal disturbance to the neuton, and so the plastic could be removed relatively slowly and allow the old 


Getting the money is a matter of governments and corporations making funds and resources available. Access to machining, laboratories, and other facilities are the easiest of things for a corporation or government to make available to researchers, and would help save the planet. (It wasn't so long ago that I'd have considered a phrase like that to be hyperbole. Now it's a fact of life that'll be uncomfortably and permanently driven home to us all within the next 2 - 5 years.)

This is why we all need to become activists and publicise and pressure in every way we can to raise awareness and make it happen. I guess you haven't gotten this far without hearing about RCX-AU, an the main purpose of that is to make communities more aware of and open to recycling and themes like this article.

As I've been researching this article, one thing has begun to stand out for me - just who publishes what. I see literally thousands of articles by mainstream media outlets that explain how hopeless the problems of sorting, managing, and recycling waste are, how insurmountable and expensive remediation will be. 

You can tell that MSM is driven by corporate policies. Because it IS so much cheaper to dig up new raw materials than it is to actually recover and recycle the waste that's inevitably produced. (Excerpt, of course, the lives of the people at the mine face so to speak, and the lives of the people whose crops and lives are poisoned by the waste or who are themselves directly poisoned by it. But corporations don't have a column in their spreadsheet for something as irrelevant as human lives. . .)

It's easier to wave hands, shrug shoulders, "it's too much for the economy to bear," "it's too hard, insurmountable" and the like. But that's bullshit. There are people out there that have the answers, and all they need is financial and material support.

Here on the other side of the coin are community and public forums, and news and blogging sites like Medium, and blogs like my blogs among others, that aren't beholden to big business bucks, and are telling the stories of how easy it could be if only some effort and money was put into relevant technologies and research. Once you start looking you can find a large - a HUGE - cohort of bloggers and writers and scientists and researchers who are calling bullshit on the huge corporations and showing ways it CAN be done cheaply and efficiently.

I know you can't support all of them. But you could support my suite of blogs and sites - subscribe to the suite newsletter (only one email a week, no flooding your inbox) - or go to the News Stand and see what my other blogs are up to. You could also make a monthly donation on my Ko-Fi.com which is actually a good way to help me keep server fees paid and also let me buy the parts for developing my recycling machines. Or you could just directly Paypal me a donation. 

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