In an eye-opening video about the potential of self-replicating machines, Isaac Arthur describes what they are and how they will soon have a huge effect on our future.
From it, we gleaned 11 need-to-know facts about self-replicating machines:
1. The Concept of the Self-replicating Machine Goes Back 400 Years
It was Descartes who first described humans as machines in the 1650s. Sam Butler claimed that the body is a self replicating machine, and centuries later, Eric Drexel further defined and popularized this and other nanotechnology theories in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation. In the book, he describes the universalassembler, whic is a machine that is able to place atoms or molecules in specific places, thus being able to create any given object.
2. Technically, They Are Alive
What is life?
Life is usually defined as the ability to eat, grow, excrete, replicate, adapt and react to the environment.
At a minimum, self-replicating machines must be able to be able to take in and use matter to create a copy of itself and form a pattern, much like our DNA. They must be able to adapt to and interact with their environments. They do not need to be able to grow, or repair themselves per se, as long as they are able create copies of themselves before they deteriorate.
Most SRMs go beyond meeting the bare minimum requirements of qualifying as life.
3. Technically, We Use Them Right Now
A 3D printer that is able to print itself is a self-replicating machine. Though it is possible, self-replicating machines do not need to be able to produce their own building material. This is the same as in humans, who use individual life forms to keep ourselves alive such as bacteria and mitochondria.
4. Mutation is Not Likely
If they are so life-like, doesn’t this mean they will eventually mutate?
Self-replicating machines are only able to mutate by design. Even if mutation did occur, say due to an adaptation in regards to ingredients used to self-replicate, it would be extremely improbable that enough machines would mutate in the same way to create a problem for their programmed directive.
5. A Range of Sizes
The machines can be microscopic or large. Because of this, practical use of self-replicating machines will most likely exist off-planet or inside of human begins as their amazing ability to build and repair could lead to prolonged life.
It is possible that in humans, nano-robots will be able to repair tissue or failing organs without invasive surgery. They will also be able to monitor systems from within, repairing and rebuilding themselves as time goes on.
With SRMs being used for space travel, space probes will be able to repair themselves for thousands of years during exploration. This allows for humanity’s evolution into extrasolar travel.
6. Future Possibilities for Space Travel
There are countless different kinds of interstellar self-replicators that will be possible In the future. The most basic and all-encompassing is the Von Neumann probe, which is an interstellar probe that self-repairs and makes copies of itself periodically while exploring space. The idea of these probes stopping to repair periodically is a way to reduce the amount of time that is lost in the repair phase, and it is an important factor to consider with all of the interstellar space probe theories.
A Bracewell probe is designed to communicate with other forms of life. In his video on self-replicating machines, Isaac Arthur gives the example of the black rectangular column in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddysey.
The probe is designed to monitor life and then figure out how to communicate with it, which means that these probes have human level intelligence or greater. Although bracewll probes are not necessarily Von Neumann machines, it would make more sense for them to be that say so that they can unpack, and build upon arrival to a new planet.
7. Hints of Doom
There a few doomsday theories about what could go wrong when dispatching out these living robots into the solar system. But as long as we are aware of the possibilities, we should be able to avoid dire consequences.
A terraforming swarm is defined by sending probes out to begin inhabiting life-sustaining planets. After the probes find a planet that is suitable for human life, they begin to terraform, which has some moral and ethical constraints, especially if there is life already on the planet.
Berserker swarms happen when probes seek out new life and destroy it. And a graygoo swarm is the concept of self-replicating machines seeking out life and eating it. Both of these ideas for SRMs play into doomsday theories about all of the negative possibilities of using self-replicating machines for space exploration, but it is important to note that these SRMs would only come about from malicious intent.
10. Destroyers of the Universe?
Despite concerns about possible malevolent robots, it is impossible for robots to gray goo a planet and destroy it all at once. Self-replicating machines cannot realistically replicate faster than organisms of the same size. However, they can reproduce faster than biological life, they are constrained by the bottleneck effect that heat has on speed and production. Exponential growth has its limits.
Further, the more complicated the machine is, the slower reproduction will be. SRMs can be microscopic or larger than a person, and with added bulk and intelligence to the machine also comes the addition of the amount of time it takes to build itself.
11. Get Ready
Isaac Arthur argues that we will see self-replicating machines being used for space exploration and in medicine in our lifetime. The technology could totally transform the way that we go about our exploration of the universe and could be a cheaper solution and learning tool for the future. Self-replicating robots can be used in space mining, colonization, and manufacturing.
Edgy Labs Readers: What did we miss? What else should we know about SRMs?