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The Road to Self-Reproducing Machines


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Artist's representation of a self-reproducing robot.

Self-reproducing machines could unleash the power of exponential growth, thus enabling audacious engineering projects. They might bring the science-fiction dream of terraforming astronomical bodies within reach. Most profoundly, by embodying biologys deep structure, they would blur the distinction between life and non-life.

Credit: Tomasz Walenta

Throughout history, creative human engineers have taken inspiration from artifacts of the biological world. Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines, submarines and tanks with birds, fish and tortoises in mind. Today, artificial neural nets, a computer architecture directly inspired by animal nervous systems, are the cutting edge of machine learning. But none of those applications get to the deep structure of biology—likely a beacon of future creativity.

As the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Paul Nurse explains in his recent book "What is Life?," the deep structure of life is the existence of physical units (cells or organisms) that can reproduce themselves, allowing small variations. Those ingredients—reproduction and variation—together drive evolution by natural selection. They generate a diverse population that can survive changes and exploit new opportunities.

Remarkably similar tricks, working on different scales, underlie many other key biological processes. Embryos develop from single cells into mature organisms after several stages of growth (in humans, a few dozen), where each stage differs a little from the previous. Thus, the fertilized egg's diverse progeny eventually includes heart, liver and brain cells. The "right" kind of cell emerges in response to signals in its local physical and chemical environment, in a kind of guided miniature evolution.

From The Wall Street Journal
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