Artificial Intelligence to watch over embryos outside the womb

Researchers in Suzhou have developed an AI system able to monitor and take care of embryos as they grow into babies in the lab. Technology won’t be a problem for its future application, but legal and ethical concerns might, warns Beijing-based researcher.

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 many animal embryos for now, they said in findings published in the domestic peer-reviewed Journal of Biomedical Engineering last month.

Previously, the development process of each embryo had to be observed, documented and adjusted manually – a labor-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.

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.