Tag Archives: Wired UK

This robotic experiment recreates evolution

Sure, we’ve seen 3D printing used to manufacture products, extrude chocolate and even create an electric vehicle, but now one 3D-printed robot is helping explore the origins of mankind.


Writing for Wired UKJames Temperton has revealed that a group of University of Glasgow chemists have successfully created the first “synthetic cells” that can evolve outside of biology, simply using a 3D-printed bot and a PlayStation camera — without any human input. The research could one day help us understand how life first appeared billions of years ago.

“Right now, evolution only applies to complex cells with many terabytes of information but the open question is where did the information come from? We have shown that it is possible to evolve very simple chemistries with little information,” Professor Lee Cronin tells Wired UK.


“Creating life from scratch is hard — and we know little about the origin of life before biology — but the use of simple robots is speeding up our understanding. The robot places four droplets of the same chemical composition into a Petri dish and uses the camera to see what happens. This process is repeated over and over again with randomly different compositions of droplets.”

The team employed a robotically-controlled [Atmel based] RepRap 3D printer responsible for carrying out the experiments with synthetic cells, while a PlayStation camera snaps photos for further analysis. The robot extrudes droplets of a chemical composition into a Petri dish and tracks its development.

Each of the droplets behave differently — some divide, some move and some vibrate. They team used its robot to deposit populations of droplets of the same composition, then ranked these populations in order of how closely they fit the criteria of behavior identified by the researchers. Using a special computer algorithm, in true survival of the fittest fashion, the robot selects the “fittest” molecules and carries these into the next experiment.

The droplets consist of four different chemicals: 1-penatol, 1-octanol, diethyl phthalate and either dodecane or octanoic acid, suspended in an alkaline solution. This is extruded over and over and over again, each time with different results. Over the millions of experiments the robot performs, it has already become apparent that the various printed droplets behave differently, and clump together to form different compositions.


“By hacking together this kit we have in effect built a highly sophisticated machine that can fully automate the life cycle of a chemical protocell model. We’ve then used the robot to explore lots of different types of ingredients to try and come up with interesting recipes that show ‘life-like’ behaviors,” Cronin explains.

The initial experiments have proven to be a success in recreating the evolution process during its primordial stage, as the chemically created synthetic cells are seen evolving under the guidance of robotic selection.

“Although we used a robot, this can be viewed as a proxy for a random droplet generator and we can show that statistically, the chances of droplet evolution happening at the origin of life is higher than a complete biological cell just springing into existence,” the professor concludes.

Interested in learning more? You can read the entire Wired UK writeup, or watch the experiment in action below!

Building a city of the future with Arduino

Writing for Wired UK, Liat Clark describes the recently held Playable Cities competition between British and Brazilian digital artists.

“The scheme was launched in January, when a Brazilian cohort came to Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol to explore the concept of a future city that is not just smart and efficient, but fun to live in,” writes Clark.

“While driverless vehicles and smart meters remain the focus of those future metropolises, Watershed wanted to explore how a smart city could be interactive, playful and most importantly, how it could bring communities together. With help from the British Council’s Creative Economy program, this [initiative] was taken to Recife.”

One of the featured exhibits was Fortune Fictions, a futuristic bus stop that cheerfully delivers witty one liners to waiting passengers. 

According to Fábio Florencio, a sound and game designer, Fortune’s goal is is to “deliver enjoyable moments” for people who are bored waiting for their buses.

“[The project] also deals with complicated elements in Recife such as lost times in traffic jams, the heat in summer and rain in winter,” he says.

More specifically, the futuristic bus stop is furnished with an Atmel-based Arduino board that receives commands from a physical button pressed by citizens – with an MP3 shield triggering sounds and phrases. In the future, Florencio and his team envision equipping the stop with pressure sensors (for the benches) and RFID readers.

“It rewards the curious Recife bus traveller with fantastical words of wisdom, gauging the mood of the city and breaking the monotony of waiting times,” Florencio explains. “Drawing on data such as weather, traffic, pollution and football information, enigmatic advice, broadcast from the bus stop itself, sends the passenger on their way with a thought… and a smile.”

Press Play – another Arduino-based exhibit displayed at the Playable Cities competition – engages the public via music. Indeed, pedestrians can touch hands, fitted with sensors, to play part or all of a tune.


So, how does it work? Well, Press Play is fitted with a conductive matting for durable touch switches connected to an Arduino and wav-Trigger board. This configuration supports up to eight tracks running simultaneously from a micro SD card.

“[Press Play] became a gathering spot for different people that haven’t met before but, for a short period, felt intensely connected with each other,” Filipe Calegario, a doctorate student for UFPE’s Informatics Centre, told Wired UK. “Last Friday was the first day of public testing and, for a moment, the systems stopped working because the battery ran low. The people’s reaction was impressive, they felt so involved that the absence of sound made them shout ask us to make the system work again. It was such a spontaneous reaction.”

The full text of Liat Clark’s “Urban Legends Brought to Life in Playable Cities Competition” can be read here on Wired UK.