Robot of the Week and John Von Neumann’s Self-Replicating Machines

Here is a self-replicating, self-repairing robot:

If you want more information on this one, check out the Cornell website for this project.

This is kind of an macro-sized, awkward and simple example of John Von Neumann’s notion of a self-replicating machine. Basically the idea is to design a machine that has the capability to autonomously recreate itself out of raw materials. The newly created machine would, by its very nature, also have the ability to make copies of itself, and so would its copies, and so on.

The concept is considered useful as a means of automated construction; essentially you’d design machines that could be placed in small numbers on a source of raw materials, that could then consume those materials to build other machines, ultimately to some end. Either the machines themselves have another use and can just mass produce themselves as well, or they have alternate programming which would kick in once a critical mass of them had created each other. For example, they might be programmed to build a building in a certain way. You would seed the construction site and raw materials with a few self-replicating constructors, they would copy themselves until there were enough to get started, then their secondary program would kick in and they would start putting together the building.

This process, especially as illustrated by the Cornell robot above, seems to echo in some ways the process of DNA Replication. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility that you could design self replicating machines that could exchange portions of their design specs to create hybrid machines, and actually mimic sexual reproduction patterns. This concept is actually being considered by some people as a way of evolving problem-solving software programs or, conceivably, nanomachine types.

You would establish a mechanism by which the self-replicating machines can exchange portions of replication instructions in a random way, and set a population to regeneration. You’d essentially get many different random mutations. Then you’d examine the child machine population (much of which would be useless or non-functional) to find useful machines that address the problem you’re looking to have it solve. If you can make the reproductive time span very quick, you could evolve hundreds or thousands (or more!) generations of mutant machines in a very short time, and possibly get a tailor-fit machine for the problem at hand much more quickly, and with less conscious effort, than it would take to design one from scratch. You’d then switch that desired machine to clone itself, rather than sexually reproduce, and make as many copies as necessary to address the problem.

People are already taking out patents on these kinds of concepts. I’m pretty sure experiments with sexually reproductive software code have already been tried. The robot version of this would have to be nanomachine based, as the large amount of mutation over many thousands of machine-generations could probably only happen on a molecular scale.

Something like this probably will eventually come to be. We’ll stop writing programs or building machines, and instead we’ll breed them like livestock.

Maybe some robust, self-sufficient species of machine will escape human husbandry and evolve into an independent, non-human intelligence. Maybe this machine intelligence will be so alien to us that no meaningful form of communication will be possible. Maybe it will just go off and do it’s own thing, or maybe it will insert itself into our business. Maybe it will turn out to be a really bad idea.

We can’t know, of course, it’s all pretty far in the future still. But the shape of it is here already, and it’s one of those ethics in science questions that probably ought to be debated publicly by an informed citizenry.

However, it seems unlikely such a debate can be started, as the concept seems a bit difficult to explain to most people, and has a science-fictiony cast to it that causes most people to dismiss it as a pulp thriller plotline.

The thing is, we are living in a science fiction present, and the future is only going to get weirder. I think we need to start dragging these concepts out of genre novels and into the public discourse. This blog is my attempt to that in a small way, until something better comes along.

I’d love to get a discussion going, if anyone would like to comment.

P.S. – looks like the listing on, or something, has pulled alot of new hits to the blog from around the US; welcome everyone! It’s still a fairly new thing, but I appreciate you checking in, and will start updating more frequently as the readership really appears to be growing!

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Bill became odd after surviving a long series of mentally destabilizing encounters with Numinous Memetic Entities. He likes to curse, and considers evocative vulgarity to be the last remaining genuine form of poetry left to the human heart.

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  • Bebhin

    Well written article.