Replication--is duplicating an entity as the creation of something new from something old, that is also similar to the old and preserves the old making it possible for an assmbler to make copies of itself. This advancement is important because it will allow creation of goods on a scale previously unimagined, a scale that continues to grow exponentially.
AS such technology is developed (some say it is already developed in larger systems), nanotechnology is partially developed. The next step, then, is to integrate these two advancements.
We then have a unversal self-reproducing nanoassembler:
- An end to material scarcity.
- The liberation of the man and the control of mind over matter.
- A posthuman level, where turning all dumb matter into smart matter is finally possible.
The concept (and reality) of self-replicating machines has been advanced and examined by, amongst others, Homer Jacobsen, Edward F. Moore, Freeman Dyson, John von Neumann and in more recent times notably K. Eric Drexler in his seminal book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation. Such technology has featured as an integral part of several plans involving the mining of moons and asteroid belts for ore and other materials, the creation of lunar factories and even the construction of solar power satellites in space. A von Neumann probe is one theoretical example of such a machine. Von Neumann also worked tirelessly on what he called the Universal Constructor, a self-replicating machine that would operate in a cellular automata environment. In fiction, they have also featured heavily in various successful Hollywood film franchises such as The Terminator series and The Matrix trilogy.
A self-replicating machine is, as the name suggests, an artificial self-replicating system that relies on conventional large-scale technology and automation. The term evolved to distinguish such systems from the microscopic nanobots or "assemblers" that nanotechnology may make possible. They are also sometimes called "Auxons", from the Greek word auxein which means "to grow", or "von Neumann machines" after John von Neumann, who first rigorously studied the idea. This last term ("von Neumann machine") is less specific and also refers to a completely unrelated computer architecture proposed by von Neumann, so its use is discouraged where accuracy is important. Von Neumann himself used the term Universal Constructor.
A self-replicating machine would need to have the capacity to gather energy and raw materials, process the raw materials into finished components, and then assemble them into a copy of itself. It is unlikely that this would all be contained within a single monolithic structure, but would rather be a group of cooperating machines or an automated factory that is capable of manufacturing all of the machines that make it up.
The factory could produce mining robots to collect raw materials, construction robots to put new machines together, and repair robots to maintain itself against wear and tear, all without human intervention or direction. The advantage of such a system lies in its ability to expand its own capacity rapidly and without additional human effort; in essence, the initial investment required to construct the first self-replicating device would have an infinitely large payoff with no additional labor cost.
Such a machine violates no physical laws, and we already possess the basic technologies necessary for some of the more detailed proposals and designs.
If proof were needed that self-replicating machines are possible the simple fact that all living organisms are self replicating by definition should go some way towards providing that proof, although most living organisms are still many times more complex than even the most advanced man-made device.
History of the concept
The general concept of artificial machines capable of producing copies of themselves dates back at least several hundred years. An early reference is an anecdote regarding the philosopher René Descartes, who suggested to Queen Christina of Sweden that the human body could be regarded as a machine; she responded by pointing to a clock and ordering "see to it that it reproduces offspring." Samuel Butler proposed in his 1872 novel Erewhon that machines were already capable of reproducing themselves with the assistance of the humans that operated them, and analogized this to flowering plants that were only capable of reproducing with the assistance of pollenating insects.
In 1802 William Paley formulated the first known teleological argument depicting machines producing other machines, suggesting that the question of who originally made a watch was rendered moot if it were demonstrated that the watch was able to manufacture a copy of itself. Scientific study of self-reproducing machines was anticipated by John Bernal as early as 1929 and by mathematicians such as Stephen Kleene who began developing recursion theory in the 1930s. Much of this latter work was motivated by interest in information processing and algorithms rather than physical implementation of such a system, however.
von Neumann's kinematic model
A detailed conceptual proposal for a physical non-biological self-replicating system was first put forward by mathematician John von Neumann in lectures delivered in 1948 and 1949, when he proposed a kinematic self-reproducing automaton model as a thought experiment. Von Neumann's concept of a physical self-replicating machine was dealt with only abstractly, with the hypothetical machine using a "sea" or stockroom of spare parts as its source of raw materials. The machine had a program stored on a memory tape that directed it to retrieve parts from this "sea" using a manipulator, assemble them into a duplicate of itself, and then copy the contents of its memory tape into the empty duplicate's. The machine was envisioned as consisting of as few as eight different types of components; four logic elements that send and receive stimuli and four mechanical elements used to provide a structural skeleton and mobility. While qualitatively sound, von Neumann was evidently dissatisfied with this model of a self-replicating machine due to the difficulty of analyzing it with mathematical rigor. He went on to instead develop an even more abstract model self-replicator based on cellular automata. His original kinematic concept remained obscure until it was popularized in a 1955 issue of Scientific American.
Moore's artificial living plants
In 1956 mathematician Edward F. Moore proposed the first known suggestion for a practical real-world self-replicating machine, also published in Scientific American. Moore's "artificial living plants" were proposed as machines able to use air, water and soil as sources of raw materials and to draw its energy from sunlight via a solar battery or a steam engine. He chose the seashore as an initial habitat for such machines, giving them easy access to the chemicals in seawater, and suggested that later generations of the machine could be designed to float freely on the ocean's surface as self-replicating factory barges or to be placed in barren desert terrain that was otherwise useless for industrial purposes. The self-replicators would be "harvested" for their component parts, to be used by humanity in other non-replicating machines.
Dyson's replicating systems
The next major development of the concept of self-replicating machines was a series of thought experiments proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson in his 1970 Vanuxem Lecture. He proposed three large-scale applications of machine replicators. First was to send a self-replicating system to Saturn's moon Enceladus, which in addition to producing copies of itself would also be programmed to manufacture and launch solar sail-propelled cargo spacecraft. These spacecraft would carry blocks of Enceladean ice to Mars, where they would be used to terraform the planet. His second proposal was a solar-powered factory system designed for a terrestrial desert environment, and his third was an "industrial development kit" based on this replicator that could be sold to developing countries to provide them with as much industrial capacity as desired. When Dyson revised and reprinted his lecture in 1979 he added proposals for a modified version of Moore's seagoing artificial living plants that was designed to distill and store fresh water for human use and the "Astrochicken."
In 1998 Charles Michael Collins received patent# 5,764,518 for a self replicating machine. The machine is a small robotic device with several attachments enabling it to tool a complete copy of itself. It implements a combination of machining techniques and a polymer buildup technique to attain independent self-replication. It additionally set forth and enabled substantial new art such as the "Trolley Car Method", first self-replicating actuators, and colorized tiles being employed for its software implementations amongst others, discussed in depth at Collins' site  The patent claims that once replicated the machines could be used for any number of industrial and personal uses. These uses range from parts machining, to large scale infrastructure creation to personal grooming.
Advanced Automation for Space Missions
In 1980, inspired by a 1979 "New Directions Workshop" held at Wood's Hole, NASA conducted a joint summer study with ASEE entitled Advanced Automation for Space Missions to produce a detailed proposal for self-replicating factories to develop lunar resources without requiring additional launches or human workers on-site. The study was conducted at Santa Clara University and ran from June 23 to August 29, with the final report published in 1982. The proposed system would have been capable of exponentially increasing productive capacity and the design could be modified to build Von Neumann probes to explore the galaxy.
The reference design included small computer-controlled electric carts running on rails inside the factory, mobile "paving machines" that used large parabolic mirrors to focus sunlight on Lunar regolith to melt and sinter it into a hard surface suitable for building on, and robotic front-end loaders for strip mining. Large transports with a variety of manipulator arms and tools were proposed as the constructors that would put together new factories from parts and assemblies produced by its parent.
Power would be provided by a "canopy" of solar cells supported on pillars. The other machinery would be placed under the canopy.
A "casting robot" would use sculpting tools and templates to make plaster molds. Plaster was selected because the molds are easy to make, can make precise parts with good surface finishes, and the plaster can be easily recycled afterward using an oven to bake the water back out. The robot would then cast most of the parts either from nonconductive molten rock (basalt) or purified metals. A carbon dioxide laser cutting and welding system was also included.
A more speculative, more complex microchip fabricator was specified to produce the computer and electronic systems, but the designers also said that it might prove practical to ship the chips from Earth as if they were "vitamins."
Much of the design study was concerned with a simple, flexible chemical system for processing the ores, and the differences between the ratio of elements needed by the replicator, and the ratios available in lunar regolith. The element that most limited the growth rate was chlorine, needed to process regolith for aluminium. Chlorine is very rare in lunar regolith.
- See main article: Replicating Spacecraft
The idea of an automated spacecraft capable of constructing copies of itself was first proposed in scientific literature in 1974 by Michael Arbib, but the concept had appeared earlier in science fiction such as the 1967 novel Berserker by Fred Saberhagen or the 1950 novellette trilogy The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt (see self-replicating machines in fiction, below). The first quantitative engineering analysis of such a spacecraft was published in 1980 by Robert Freitas, in which the non-replicating Project Daedalus design was modified to include all subsystems necessary for self-replication. The design's strategy was to use the probe to deliver a "seed" factory with a mass of about 443 tons to a distant site, have the seed factory replicate many copies of itself there to increase its total manufacturing capacity, and then use the resulting automated industrial complex to construct more probes with a single seed factory on board each.
Clanking replicators are also mentioned briefly in the fourth chapter of K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation. Article about a proposed clanking replicator system to be used for developing Earthly deserts in the October 1995 Discover Magazine, featuring forests of solar panels that powered desalination equipment to irrigate the land. In 1995, Nick Szabo proposed a challenge to build a macroscale replicator from Lego(tm) robot kits and similar basic parts. Szabo wrote that this approach was easier than previous proposals for macroscale replicators, but successfully predicted that even this method would not lead to a macroscale replicator within ten years. In 2004, General Dynamics completed a study for NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts. It concluded that complexity of the development was equal to that of a Pentium 4, and promoted a design based on cellular automata. In 2004, Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle published the first comprehensive review of the field of self-replication, in their book Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, which includes 3000+ literature references. In 2005, Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath started the RepRap Project to develop a rapid prototyping machine which would be able to replicate itself, making such machines cheap enough for people to buy and use in their homes. The project is releasing material under the GNU GPL.
Self-replicating machines in fiction
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow. In fiction, the idea dates back at least as far as Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).
A. E. van Vogt used the idea as a plot device in his story "M33 in Adromeda" (1943), which was later combined with four other General Semantics stories to became the novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. The story describes the creation of self-replicating weapons factories designed to destroy the Anabis, a galaxy-spanning malevolent life form bent on destruction of the human race.
An early treatment was the short story Autofac by Philip K. Dick, published in 1955, which precedes von Neumann's original paper about self-reproducing machines. Dick also touched on this theme in his earlier 1953 short story Second Variety. Another example can be found in the 1962 short story Epilogue by Poul Anderson, in which self-replicating factory barges were proposed that used minerals extracted from ocean water as raw materials.
In his short story "Crabs on the Island" (1958) Anatoli Dneprov speculated on the idea that since the replication process is never 100% accurate, leading to slight differences in the descendants, over several generations of replication the machines would be subjected to evolution similar to that of living organisms. In the story, a machine is designed, the sole purpose of which is to find metal to produce copies of itself, intended to be used as a weapon against an enemy's war machines. The machines are released on a deserted island, the idea being that once the available metal is all used and they start fighting each other, natural selection will enhance their design. However, the evolution has stopped by itself when the last descendant, an enormously large crab, was created, being unable to reproduce itself due to lack of energy and materials.
Stanisław Lem has also studied the same idea in his novel The Invincible (1964), in which the crew of a spacecraft landing on a distant planet finds non-biological life-form, which is the product of long, possibly of millions of years of mechanical evolution. This phenomenon is also key to the aforementioned Anderson story.
John Sladek used the concept to humorous ends in his first novel The Reproductive System (1968, also titled Mechasm in some markets), where a U.S. military research project goes out of control.
NASA's Advanced Automation for Space Missions study directly inspired the science fiction novel Code of the Lifemaker (1983) by author James P. Hogan.
The movie Screamers, based on Dick's short story Second Variety, features a group of robot weapons created by mankind to act as Von Neumann devices / berserkers. The original robots are subterranean buzzsaws that make a screaming sound as they approach a potential victim beneath the soil. These machines are self-replicating and, as is found out through the course of the movie, they are quite intelligent and have managed to "evolve" into newer, more dangerous forms, most notably human forms which the real humans in the movie cannot tell apart from other real humans except by trial and error.
The concept is also widely utilised in science fiction television. Cult series Lexx featured an army of self replicating robots known as Mantrid drones. Similarly the Replicators are a horde of self-replicating machines that appear frequently in Stargate SG-1.
Other notable works containing replicators
"Autofac" by Philip K. Dick "The Necessary Thing" by Robert Sheckley, in which a universal replicator is tricked into replicating itself The Berserker series of books and short stories by Fred Saberhagen The Forge of God by Greg Bear 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke The World at the End of Time by Frederik Pohl Recursion by Tony Ballantyne ISBN 0-330-42699-0 Evolution by Stephen Baxter
Prospects for implementation
As the use of industrial automation has expanded over time, some factories have begun to approach a semblance of self-sufficiency that is suggestive of clanking replicators (another name for self-replicating machines). Further, larger actual self-replicating systems, such as the F-Unit systems have claimed to have closed the loop but are not available for domestic deployment yet. However, such factories are unlikely to achieve "full closure" until the cost and flexibility of automated machinery comes close to that of human labour and the manufacture of spare parts and other components locally becomes more economical than transporting them from elsewhere. Fully-capable machine replicators are most useful for developing resources in dangerous environments which are not easily reached by existing transportation systems (such as outer space).
A clanking replicator can be considered a form of artificial life. Depending on its design, it might be subject to evolution over long time periods. However, with robust error correction, and the possibility of external intervention, the common science fiction theme of robotic life run amok is unlikely in the near term.