1. What is it about
You are amazed by its sheer complexity. You can see machines of all types. This thing makes everything; digger robots for mining, transport robots, warehouse robots, energy capturing robots, assembly robots, designer robots, repair robots, meta-repair robots and everything in between. The end result of all this effort; more robots.
You don’t want to call this thing a factory although that is a close approximation. You like to think of the whole system as one big self-replicating machine. It is all self-contained and self-maintained by machines. We had never had it so good. Life is easy …
Self-replicating machines have long been a goal humans have longed for. Its advantages are clear. You setup the machine once and it doesn’t need human intervention. It can go on its own business and make the final product you are after while making all other products necessary to sustain itself, find energy and material and also grow its production capacity if required.
Self-replication can be considered in two separate scales; macro and nano. In macro scale, self-replicating machines are usually depicted as robots while nano-scale self-replicators are used to construct nano-machines used for a different set of applications. For example, macro scale self-replicators can be used to terraform a planet and make it habitable, while the nano-scale replicators can be used to hunt for cancer cells in a human body and attempt to kill them.
2. Where is the fun
- Making completely sustainable self-replicating robots that maintain and manufacture themselves on Mars and established a colony. Humans simply go to Mars as tourists knowing that everything has been taken care of by the machines.
- Pouring a bucket of nano self-replicating energy converters on a surface and expecting the machines to replicate and make enough of themselves to cover the area with a thin layer of solar panel that converts sun rays to electricity.
3. What are its Applications
Self-replicating machines can have a wide range of applications as they simply take labour effort out of an activity. Certain tasks such as terraforming a planet are considered incredibly expensive and time-consuming. With self-replicating machines, you only need to set the system up once and then forget about it for many years. The system will take care of its own health.
- It can be used for other space applications such as space travel, space colonization, space exploration and space mining.
- They are ideal as assembly machines. Some applications are
- Self-maintained fully autonomous factories
- Robot replicators used for cleaning and clearing up certain materials from an environment
Once it is possible to have self-replicators, the manufactured devices can be improved by means of evolution. Some designs can have mutation before getting replicated. Some designs can also be combined with cross-over to produce something with characteristics of parent machines in a similar process to biological evolution. Those machines that don’t perform well in the environment for the particular task they were assigned to can be negatively scored. The lower their scores, the lower their chances of producing offspring. Evolutionary replicators eliminate the need for humans to put effort into improving the design of the machines.
4. How developed is it
There has been some progress in Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing. Both of these technologies can be used by a self-replicator to manufacture a new version of itself. One of the biggest challenges is how a self-replicator repairs itself or the machinery that carries out the replication. You may add a repair robot to maintain certain parts of the system. Now, what happens if that repair machine needs to repair itself and so on. Conceptually, self-replicating machines do not violate any physical laws and are in principle possible. Self-replicator’s primary benefit is elimination of labour costs. For self-replication to become feasible, one or more of these must be true:
- Labour costs should be high for a particular task
- The sheer scale of the task should dictate a need for large number of machines that can maintain themselves, hence self-replicators.
- The environment that the machines need to operate in is not habitable or convenient for human labour.
- The scale that the machines operate in is not the same scale that humans operate in. Examples are nano-scale and space-scale.
In general self-replication is in its infancy and we have a long way to go before we can get there. Current research examples use 3D printing such as RepRap, or Game of Life (robotic example).
(From Self-Replicating Machine Pictures)
The first successful design of robots by robots was carried out in the Golem Project (Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanics), published in 2000. The researchers conducted a set of experiments in which simple electro-mechanical systems evolved from scratch to yield physical locomotion machines. The robots took advantage of their own environment to improve their mobility.
5. How can it be improved
The first application of self-replicators will probably be in the nano-scale to improve production of nano-scale material such as computer chips. Most probably, before self-replication can be advanced, the field of nano-technology and robotics should have become mature and their products mainstream.
6. What does it lead to
Self-replication may not be feasible for very simple products. You may as well produce them by traditional mass-manufacturing methods that produce a far less complicated product more efficiently. Self-replication starts to become economical only when the complexity of the product exceeds a certain level. Mass manufacturing a complex product may become more complex than designing a self-replicating machine that produces the product with self-replicating capability. At that level, humans are suddenly confronted with the idea that they only have to design one machine and that machine will produce all others. It means they can use the machines as slaves. Imagine if everything humans wanted could be manufactured by self-replication. Even better, imagine if the machines started to design self-replicators for us. Humans can simply relax, do what they like, think what they like and basically be happy as much as they can. They can think bigger and expect to get more. There are many challenges that we think are next to impossible. Perhaps self-replicators are what we need to have so that we can think big; like colonizing space and galaxies, turning uninhabitable worlds habitable, living underwater and other challenges we can think of by then!
Is the luxury life provided by self-replicators fair? You bet. It took us humans generations after generations to build such civilizations capable of producing self-replicators and it wasn’t easy. When we get to it, we deserve it just as much.