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.

Playing Life

SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES often depict cybernetic self-replication as a natural development of current technology, but they gloss over the profound problem it poses: how to avoid an infinite regress. A system might try to build a clone using a blueprint—that is, a self-description. Yet the self-description is part of the machine, is it not? If so, what describes the description? And what describes the description of the description? Self-replication in this case would be like asking an architect to make a perfect blueprint of his or her own studio. The blueprint would have to contain a miniature version of the blueprint, which would contain a miniature version of the blueprint, and so on. Without this information, a construction crew would be unable to re-create the studio fully; there would be a blank space where the blueprint had been.

Von Neumann's great insight was an explanation of how to break out of the infinite regress. He realized that the self-description could be used in two distinct ways: first, as the instructions whose interpretation leads to the construction of an identical copy of the device; next, as data to be copied, uninterpreted, and attached to the newly created child so that it, too, possesses the ability to self-replicate. With this two-step process, the self-description need not contain a description of itself. In the architectural analogy, the blueprint would include a plan for building a photocopy machine. Once the new studio and the photocopier were built, the construction crew would simply run off a copy of the blueprint and put it into the new studio.

Living cells use their self-description, which biologists call the genotype, in exactly these two ways: transcription (DNA is copied mostly uninterpreted to form mRNA) and translation (mRNA is interpreted to build proteins). Von Neumann made this transcription-translation distinction several years before molecular biologists did, and his work has been crucial in understanding self-replication in nature.

To prove these ideas, von Neumann and mathematician Stanislaw M. Ulam came up with the idea of cellular automata. A cellular-automata simulation involves a chessboardlike grid of squares, or cells, each of which is either empty or occupied by one of several possible components. At discrete intervals of time, each cell looks at itself and its neighbors and decides whether to metamorphose into a different component. In making this decision, the cell follows relatively simple rules, which are the same for all cells. These rules constitute the basic physics of the cellular-automata world. All decisions and actions take place locally; cells do not know directly what is happening outside their immediate neighborhood.

The apparent simplicity of cellular automata is deceptive; it does not imply ease of design or poverty of behavior. The most famous automaton, John Horton Conway's Game of Life, produces amazingly intricate patterns. Many questions about the dynamic behavior of cellular automata are formally unsolvable. To see how a pattern will unfold, you need to simulate it fully. In its own way, a cellular-automata model can be just as complex as the real world.

Copy Machines

WITHIN CELLULAR automata, self-replication occurs when a group of components—a “machine”—goes through a sequence of steps to construct a nearby duplicate of itself. Von Neumann's machine was based on a universal constructor, a machine that, given the appropriate instructions, could create any pattern. The constructor consisted of numerous types of components spread over tens of thousands of cells and required a book-length manuscript to be specified. It has still not been simulated in its entirety, let alone actually built, on account of its complexity. A constructor would be even more complicated in the Game of Life because the functions performed by single cells in von Neumann's model—such as transmission of signals and generation of new components—have to be performed by composite structures in Life.

Going to the other extreme, it is easy to find trivial examples of self-replication. For example, suppose that a cellular automaton has only one type of component, labeled +, and that each cell follows only a single rule: if exactly one of the four neighboring cells contains a +, then the cell becomes a +; otherwise it becomes vacant. With this rule, a single + grows into four more +'s, each of which grows likewise, and so forth.

Such weedlike proliferation does not shed much light on the principles of replication, because there is no significant machine. Of course, that invites the question of how you would tell a “significant” machine from a trivially prolific automaton. No one has yet devised a satisfactory answer. What is clear, however, is that the replicating structure must in some sense be complex. For example, it must consist of multiple, diverse components whose interactions collectively bring about replication—the proverbial “whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.” The existence of multiple, distinct components permits a self-description to be stored within the replicating structure.

In the years since von Neumann's seminal work, many researchers have probed the domain between the complex and the trivial, developing replicators that require fewer components, less space or simpler rules. A major step forward was taken in 1984 when Christopher G. Langton, then at the University of Michigan, observed that looplike storage devices—which had formed modules of earlier self-replicating machines—could be programmed to replicate on their own. These devices typically consist of two pieces: the loop itself, which is a string of components that circulate around a rectangle, and a construction arm, which protrudes from a corner of the rectangle into the surrounding space. The circulating components constitute a recipe for the loop—for example, “go three squares ahead, then turn left.” When this recipe reaches the construction arm, the automata rules make a copy of it. One copy continues around the loop; the other goes down the arm, where it is interpreted as instructions.

By giving up the requirement of universal construction, which was central to von Neumann's approach, Langton showed that a replicator could be constructed from just seven unique components occupying only 86 cells. Even smaller and simpler self-replicating loops have been devised by one of us (Reggia) and our colleagues [see box on next page]. Because they have multiple interacting components and include a self-description, they are not trivial. Intriguingly, asymmetry plays an unexpected role: the rules governing replication are often simpler when the components are not rotationally symmetric than when they are.

Emergent Replication

ALL THESE self-replicating structures have been designed through ingenuity and much trial and error. This process is arduous and often frustrating; a small change to one of the rules results in an entirely different global behavior, most likely the disintegration of the structure in question. But recent work has gone beyond the direct-design approach. Instead of tailoring the rules to suit a particular type of structure, researchers have experimented with various sets of rules, filled the cellular-automata grid with a “primordial soup” of randomly selected components and checked whether self-replicators emerged spontaneously.

In 1997 Hui-Hsien Chou, now at Iowa State University, and Reggia noticed that as long as the initial density of the free-floating components was above a certain threshold, small self-replicating loops reliably appeared. Loops that collided underwent annihilation, so there was an ongoing process of death as well as birth. Over time, loops proliferated, grew in size and evolved through mutations triggered by debris from past collisions. Although the automata rules were deterministic, these mutations were effectively random, because the system was complex and the components started in random locations.

Such loops are intended as abstract machines and not as simulacra of anything biological, but it is interesting to compare them with biomolecular structures. A loop loosely resembles circular DNA in bacteria, and the construction arm acts as the enzyme that catalyzes DNA replication. More important, replicating loops illustrate how complex global behaviors can arise from simple local interactions. For example, components move around a loop even though the rules say nothing about movement; what is actually happening is that individual cells are coming alive, dying or metamorphosing in such a way that a pattern is eliminated from one position and reconstructed elsewhere—a process that we perceive as motion. In short, cellular automata act locally but appear to think globally. Much the same is true of molecular biology.

In a recent computational experiment, Jason Lohn, now at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Reggia experimented not with different structures but with different sets of rules. Starting with an arbitrary block of four components, they found they could determine a set of rules that made the block self-replicate. They discovered these rules via a genetic algorithm, an automated process that simulates Darwinian evolution.

The most challenging aspect of this work was the definition of the so-called fitness function—the criteria by which sets of rules were judged, thus separating good solutions from bad ones and driving the evolutionary process toward rule sets that facilitated replication. You cannot simply assign high fitness to those sets of rules that cause a structure to replicate, because none of the initial rule sets is likely to allow for replication. The solution was to devise a fitness function composed of a weighted sum of three measures: a growth measure (the extent to which each component type generates an increasing supply of that component), a relative position measure (the extent to which neighboring components stay together) and a replicant measure (a function of the number of actual replicators present). With the right fitness function, evolution can turn rule sets that are sterile into ones that are fecund; the process usually takes 150 or so generations.

Self-replicating structures discovered in this fashion work in a fundamentally different way than self-replicating loops do. For example, they move and deposit copies along the way—unlike replicating loops, which are essentially static. And although these newly discovered replicators consist of multiple, locally interacting components, they do not have an identifiable self-description—there is no obvious genome. The ability to replicate without a self-description may be relevant to questions about how the earliest biological replicators originated. In a sense, researchers are seeing a continuum between nonliving and living structures.

Many researchers have tried other computational models besides the traditional cellular automata. In asynchronous cellular automata, cells are not updated in concert; in nonuniform cellular automata, the rules can vary from cell to cell. Another approach altogether is Core War and its successors, such as ecologist Thomas S. Ray's Tierra system. In these simulations the “organisms” are computer programs that vie for processor time and memory. Ray has observed the emergence of “parasites” that co-opt the self-replication code of other organisms.

Getting Real

SO WHAT GOOD are these machines? Von Neumann's universal constructor can compute in addition to replicating, but it is an impractical beast. A major advance has been the development of simple yet useful replicators. In 1995 Gianluca Tempesti of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne simplified the loop self-description so it could be interlaced with a small program—in this case, one that would spell the acronym of his lab, “LSL.” His insight was to create automata rules that allow loops to replicate in two stages. First the loop, like Langton's loop, makes a copy of itself. Once finished, the daughter loop sends a signal back to its parent, at which point the parent sends the instructions for writing out the letters.

Drawing letters was just a demonstration. The following year Jean-Yves Perrier, Jacques Zahnd and one of us (Sipper) designed a self-replicating loop with universal computational capabilities—that is, with the computational power of a universal Turing machine, a highly simplified but fully capable computer. This loop has two “tapes,” or long strings of components, one for the program and the other for data. The loops can execute an arbitrary program in addition to self-replicating. In a sense, they are as complex as the computer that simulates them. Their main limitation is that the program is copied unchanged from parent to child, so all loops carry out the same set of instructions.

In 1998 Chou and Reggia swept away this limitation. They showed how self-replicating loops carrying distinct information, rather than a cloned program, can be used to solve a problem known as satisfiability. The loops can be used to determine whether the variables in a logical expression can be assigned values such that the entire expression evaluates to “true.” This problem is NP-complete—in other words, it belongs to the family of nasty puzzles, including the famous traveling salesman problem, for which there is no known efficient solution. In Chou and Reggia's cellular-automata universe, each replicator received a different partial solution. During replication, the solutions mutated, and replicators with promising solutions were allowed to proliferate while those with failed solutions died out.

Although various teams have created cellular automata in electronic hardware, such systems are probably too wasteful for practical applications; automata were never really intended to be implemented directly. Their purpose is to illuminate the underlying principles of replication and, by doing so, to inspire more concrete efforts. The loops provide a new paradigm for designing a parallel computer from either transistors or chemicals.

In 1980 a NASA team led by Robert Freitas, Jr., proposed planting a factory on the moon that would replicate itself, using local lunar materials, to populate a large area exponentially. Indeed, a similar probe could colonize the entire galaxy, as physicist Frank J. Tipler of Tulane University has argued. In the nearer term, computer scientists and engineers have experimented with the automated design of robots. Although these systems are not truly self-replicating—the offspring are much simpler than the parent—they are a first step toward fulfilling the queen of Sweden's request.

Should physical self-replicating machines become practical, they and related technologies will raise difficult issues, including the Terminator film scenario in which artificial creatures outcompete natural ones. We prefer the more optimistic, and more probable, scenario that replicators will be harnessed to the benefit of humanity. The key will be taking the advice of 14th-century English philosopher William of Ockham: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem—entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.


MOSHE SIPPER and JAMES A. REGGIA share a long-standing interest in how complex systems can self-organize. Sipper is an associate professor in the department of computer science at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. He is interested mainly in evolutionary computation, primarily as applied to games and bioinformatics. Reggia is a professor of computer science and neurology, working in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland. In addition to studying self-replication, he conducts research on computational models of the brain and its disorders, such as stroke.