Chinese scientists create AI nanny to look after babies in artificial womb

Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 31 2022 01:15 PM | Updated as of Jan 31 2022 01:24 PM

An artificial womb for fetuses to safely grow in, and a robotic nanny to monitor and take care of them.

All within the realm of possibility, say Chinese scientists, in what could be a breakthrough for the future of childbearing in a country facing its lowest birth rates in decades.

That is, once the law allows the use of such technology.

Researchers in Suzhou, in China's eastern Jiangsu province, say they have developed an artificial intelligence system that can monitor and take care of embryos as they grow into fetuses in an artificial womb environment.

This AI nanny is looking after a large number of animal embryos for now, they said in findings published in the domestic peer-reviewed Journal of Biomedical Engineering last month.

But the same technology could eliminate the need for a woman to carry her baby, allowing the fetus to grow more safely and efficiently outside her body, the paper says.

The artificial womb, or "long-term embryo culture device", is a container where they have mouse embryos growing in a line of cubes filled with nutritious fluids, says the team led by professor Sun Haixuan at the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, a subsidiary of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Earlier, the development process of each embryo had to be observed, documented and adjusted manually - a labour-intensive task that became unsustainable as the scale of the research increased.

The robotic system or "nanny" now created can monitor the embryos in unprecedented detail, as it moves up and down the line around the clock, the research paper says.

AI technology helps the machine detect the smallest signs of change on the embryos and fine-tune the carbon dioxide, nutrition and environmental inputs.

The system can even rank the embryos by health and development potential. When an embryo develops a major defect or dies, the machine would alert a technician to remove it from the womblike receptacle.

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Current international laws prohibit experimental studies on human embryos beyond two weeks of development.

However, research on the later stages is important because "there are still many unsolved mysteries about the physiology of typical human embryonic development", Sun and his colleagues say in their paper.

The technology would "not only help further understand the origin of life and embryonic development of humans, but also provide a theoretical basis for solving birth defects and other major reproductive health problems", they add.

This comes as China faces a sharp decline in birth rates, with the number of newborns nearly halving in the five years from 2016. Net population growth last year was the lowest in six decades, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Surveys show young Chinese women increasingly rejecting the traditional priorities of marriage and children, despite the drastic easing of China's one-child policy and other state incentives.

Low birth rates are a worldwide concern in fact, especially for developed societies. When SpaceX founder Elon Musk sparked a social media discussion on "population collapse" two weeks ago, some tech gurus proposed a lab-made womb as the best solution - as it would reduce the pain, risks and cost of childbearing for a woman and her career.

Even on Chinese internet and social media platforms, there are growing discussions about artificial womb technology and whether it could be used to reverse the population trend.

The Suzhou researchers say their robot nanny is able to identify and track the embryos and take ultra-sharp images of varying depth by quickly switching between different lenses. AI technology also allows the machine to detect and learn from new phenomena that may remain unseen or neglected by humans, and this could accelerate "the optimisation and iteration of the long-term embryonic culture technology in-vitro", Sun and his colleagues say in their paper.

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Artificial womb technology is not new, and has developed rapidly in recent years. In 2019, a research team with the Institute of Zoology in Beijing took a fertilised monkey egg to the organ-forming stage in a synthetic uterus, the first time a primate embryo had gone this far outside the mother's body.

The same year, scientists in the Netherlands told the BBC that they were within 10 years of building an artificial womb to save premature babies.

Another team in Israel brought a batch of over 100 mouse embryos to half-grown fetus stage in March last year. "I don't think technology would be a problem," a researcher with the Capital Institute of Paediatrics in Beijing said.

The issue would be legal and ethical challenges in China and beyond, said the researcher who requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Surrogacy is banned in China by law. Artificial womb technology would turn a hospital into a surrogate parent. "I don't think any hospital would want to bear this responsibility," the researcher said.

Mass production of babies in an artificial womb plant might help maintain the population in a country where citizens are not keen to bear children. But what might be the social or psychological implications?

"If everyone is born this way, fair enough. But if some children are given birth to by parents, and some by the government, there will be a big problem."