A Chain-Smoking Robot Isn’t Just Hilarious—It’s a Big Deal

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Robots are great at a lot of things—brute force, repetition, and speed, for instance (though maybe not walking). Now add to that list one of the most human of human endeavors: smoking.

That’s right, researchers have built a chain-smoking robot. And not because they want a real-life Bender. Forcing a robot to smoke could help scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute solve the mysteries of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—the intense coughing and lung infections that plague smokers. And it’s far more humane than the other research method of forcing rats to smoke.

Here’s how it works. The researchers load as many as 12 cigarettes in a sort of gatling gun arrangement, and the robot fires up each with a lighter right out of a car. Then they program the machine to huff away at customizable intensities and frequencies.

The robot is passing the smoke into what’s known as a lung on a chip, which mimics a human airway. This transparent chip contains a channel of living lung cells, which produce mucus and hairlike structures called cilia that ferry the mucus around. Connected to this channel are tubes that move smoke in and out. By loading up one chip with lung cells from a patient with pulmonary disease and another chip with cells from a healthy patient, researchers can observe how the two react differently to smoke.

And early results, published in a paper last week, are a glimpse at what this technology can do for medicine. For one, by sending smoke through the chips, the scientists could confirm a hunch. “First of all, we were able to show that the chips that were lined by cells from COPD patients showed a much bigger inflammatory response to the cigarette smoke exposure than normal, which is consistent with cigarette exposure bringing a COPD patient to the emergency room,” says Donald Ingber, one of the robot’s creators and director of the Wyss Institute.

The second bit gets deeper into the actual mechanisms involved. Because the researchers can see right into the chip, they can observe the beating cilia moving the mucus around. They found that smoke makes these cilia freak out a bit, beating at irregular intervals instead of their standard, uniform rate. “The cigarette smoke essentially interferes with their oriented cleansing motion, so you get distorted motion,” says Ingber, “and that’s probably why people who smoke are coughing and have more mucus.” Treating COPD, then, could be a matter of treating the wayward cilia.

Great stuff, and all the better considering the robot doesn’t give a hoot if you force it to chain smoke. The alternative subjects in this type of experiment? Not so much. This sort of thing typically requires stuffing rats in a smoke-filled box. Not only is using a robot more humane, but it’s a better representation of human responses to smoke. Rats don’t breathe like we do—it’s all in and out through the nose—and a rodent’s immune response to smoke isn’t like that of a human.

So a big welcome to the chain-smoking robot. Your fellow smokers—human or otherwise—appreciate your habit.

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