Plenary talks July 20-22, 2022

11th edition of Living Machines

Plenary speakers will highlight the relevant contributions to the fields of biomimetics and biohybrid systems.

From Living Organism to Living Machines

Hillel J. Chiel

What characteristics would a machine have to be considered alive? Are living organisms machines? These questions are a focus for active research as scientists and engineers attempt to bridge the gap between artificial and natural devices. 

Defining what is alive and what is not is difficult. Lists of characteristics to define life such as organization, metabolism, homeostasis, growth, reproduction and responsiveness, always have exceptions. A more abstract definition, autopeoisis – a network of processes producing key components necessary to maintain the operation of the network as a unit – has intriguing implications but has been more difficult to test empirically. A key to answering this question comes from understanding the unique characteristics of living cells: their internal self-description that encodes three dimensional components that maintain the network of cell processes, their ability to replicate, and their ability to respond adaptively to changing environmental conditions, avoiding damage and finding nutrients.

A complementary approach to the question is to understand the way in which living organisms and non-living organisms are created and modified. Most human-made machines are designed, manufactured, and controlled. In living organisms, the roughly corresponding processes are evolution, development, and plasticity, all of which emerge from and act upon the properties of cells and multi-cellular organisms. Moreover, manufacturers of artificial devices work hard to reduce variation and noise; in contrast, variation and noise are essential to the function of biological organisms. 

The areas of artificial life, synthetic biology, and bio-hybrid robotics are actively exploring and expanding the borders of what is alive and what is not. Describing examples of some of the recent work in these and related areas, and descriptions of some of the open questions that need to be addressed for the future, will suggest exciting areas for future research that could lead to novel Living Machines.


Dr. Hillel J. Chiel graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale University, and then received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from M.I.T. in Neural and Endocrine Regulation. He did postdoctoral work in the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and in the Molecular Biophysics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories, before joining the faculty of Case Western Reserve University. He is currently a Professor of Biology, Neurosciences and Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. His research focuses on the neural and biomechanical mechanisms of adaptive behavior in the marine mollusk Aplysia californica, which has served as the basis for novel biologically-inspired robots and novel technology that may have clinical applications. He is the author of more than 150 peer reviewed publications, has six patents, is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and serves as an editor of the journal Soft Robotics. He is currently a co-principal investigator on an NSF Neuronex grant, and on an NIH BRAIN initiative grant. He won the university-wide Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2004, the Diekhoff Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2009, and the Science (America Association for the Advancement of Science) Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction in 2012. He has been a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, London, England since 2004.

Bio-inspired Drones for Sustainability

Mirko Kovac

Environmental sciences rely heavily on accurate, timely and complete data sets which are often collected manually at significant risks and costs. Robotics and mobile sensor networks can collect data more effectively and with higher spatial-temporal resolution compared to manual methods while benefiting from expanded operational envelopes and added data collection capabilities. In future, robotics and AI will be an indispensable tool for data collection in complex environments, enabling the digitalisation of forests, lakes, off-shore energy systems, cities and the polar environment. However, such future robot solutions will need to operate more flexibly, robustly and efficiently than they do today.

This talk will present how animal-inspired robot design methods can integrate adaptive morphologies, functional materials and energy-efficient locomotion principles to enable this new class of sustainability robotics. The talk will also include application examples, such as flying robots that can place sensors in forests, aerial-aquatic drones for autonomous water sampling, drones for aerial construction and repair, and impact-resilient drones for safe operations in underground and tunnel systems.



Twitter: @MKovacRobotics

Prof. Mirko Kovac is director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory, full professor at Imperial College London and Royal Society Wolfson Fellow. He is also heading the Materials and Technology Centre of Robotics at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) in Zürich. His research group focusses on the development of novel mobile robots for distributed sensing and autonomous manufacturing in complex natural environments. Prof. Kovac’s particular specialisation is in robot design, hardware development and multi-modal sensor mobility.

Before his appointment in London, he was post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University and he obtained his PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). He received his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) in 2005.

Since 2006, he has presented his work in 81 peer reviewed publications in leading conferences and journals, has won several best paper awards and has delivered 95 keynote and invited lectures. He also regularly acts as advisor to government, investment funds and industry on robotics opportunities.

Beyond Bioinspired: Living and organic materials for living machines

Victoria Webster-Wood

Bioinspiration and biomimetics have led to tremendous advances in robotics and computing. From high-level abstractions of bioinspired principles in early passive walkers to detailed neural models for robotic control, bioinspired robotics has brought robots from the lab into the real world. However, despite these advances, existing robots still fail to capture the natural compliance, adaptability, and biocompatibility of living organisms. For example, standard materials for robotic fabrication do not exhibit self-healing, adapt in response to changing mechanical load, or have the ability to autonomously generate energy, as is seen in biological systems. Additionally, traditional robotic actuators lack the compliance, energy efficiency, and power-to-weight ratio combinations observed in musculoskeletal systems. Furthermore, these systems rely on many non-renewable and sometimes even hazardous materials. How can living and organic materials be leveraged alongside abiotic components to improve the adaptability and biocompatibility of robots?

Recent advances in tissue engineering and biomaterials have made it possible to consider a new class of robotic systems harnessing living and organic materials directly. But, when should biomaterials be considered over synthetic counterparts? Furthermore, how might we as engineers begin to consider the environmental impact of our creations? Through this talk, I will explore the emerging field of biohybrid robotics, discuss the challenges currently facing the field, and present a long-term vision for the future of biocompatible and even biodegradable robots.

Victoria Webster-Wood is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University with courtesy appointments in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine. She is the director of the C.M.U. Biohybrid and Organic Robotics Group and has a long-term research goal to develop completely organic, autonomous robots. Research in the C.M.U. B.O.R.G. brings together bio-inspired robotics, tissue engineering, and computational neuroscience to study and model neuromuscular control and translate findings to the creation of renewable robotic devices.

Dr. Webster-Wood completed her postdoc at Case Western Reserve University in the Tissue Fabrication and Mechanobiology Lab. She received her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the same institution as an N.S.F. Graduate Research Fellow in the Biologically Inspired Robotics Lab. She received the NSF CAREER Award in 2021 and is a co-PI of the N.S.F. NeuroNex Network on Communication, Coordination, and Control in Neuromechanical Systems (C3NS).