See Inside Your Future with Robots

Go Forth and Replicate [Preview]

Birds do it, bees do it, but could machines do it? Computer simulations suggest that the answer is yes

Apples beget apples, but can machines beget machines? Today it takes an elaborate manufacturing apparatus to build even a simple machine. Could we endow an artificial device with the ability to multiply on its own? Selfreplication has long been considered one of the fundamental properties separating the living from the nonliving. Historically our limited understanding of how biological reproduction works has given it an aura of mystery and made it seem unlikely that it would ever be done by a man-made object. It is reported that when René Descartes averred to Queen Christina of Sweden that animals were just another form of mechanical automata, Her Majesty pointed to a clock and said, “See to it that it produces off spring.”

The problem of machine self-replication moved from philosophy into the realm of science and engineering in the late 1940s with the work of eminent mathematician and physicist John von Neumann. Some researchers have actually constructed physical replicators. Almost 50 years ago, for example, geneticist Lionel Penrose and his son, Roger (the famous physicist), built small assemblies of plywood that exhibited a simple form of self-replication. But self-replication has proved to be so difficult that most researchers study it with the conceptual tool that von Neumann developed: two-dimensional cellular automata.

Implemented on a computer, cellular automata can simulate a huge variety of self-replicators in what amount to austere universes with different laws of physics from our own. Such models free researchers from having to worry about logistical issues such as energy and physical construction so that they can focus on the fundamental questions of information flow. How is a living being able to replicate unaided, whereas mechanical objects must be constructed by humans? How does replication at the level of an organism emerge from the numerous interactions in tissues, cells and molecules? How did Darwinian evolution give rise to self-replicating organisms?

The emerging answers have inspired the development of self-repairing silicon chips [see box on pages 54 and 55] and autocatalyzing molecules. And this may be just the beginning. Researchers in the field of nanotechnology have long proposed that self-replication will be crucial to manufacturing molecular-scale machines, and proponents of space exploration see a macroscopic version of the process as a way to colonize planets using in situ materials. Recent advances have given credence to these futuristic-sounding ideas. As with other scientific disciplines, including genetics, nuclear energy and chemistry, those of us who study self-replication face the twofold challenge of creating replicating machines and avoiding dystopian predictions of devices running amok. The knowledge we gain will help us separate good technologies from destructive ones.

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