The philosopher René Descartes instructed Queen Christina of Sweden that the human body could be regarded as a machine; whereby the Queen pointing to a clock ordered him to ‘see to it that it produces offspring’.
A self-replicating machine is defined as a construction that is capable of reproducing itself autonomously using raw materials found in its environment.
The idea of the self-replicating machine has been around for a while. In Stanislaw Lem’s 1964 novel The Invincible a spaceship lands on a distant planet to find a mechanical life form, the product of millions of years of mechanical evolution. The idea gained currency in the thought experiments of Freeman Dyson in his 1970 Vanuxem lecture on space exploration and terraforming. NASA’s research in the 1980’s produced Advanced Automation for Space Missions a detailed proposal for self-replicating factories on the Moon to develop resources without requiring additional launches or human workers on-site. A 2004 study supported by NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts has taken the idea further. The future development of such technology remains part of plans involving the mining of the Moon and asteroids, creation of solar-powered satellites and factories in space.
The idea is also alive and kicking in the microfactories on Earth of self-replicating rapid prototypers such as the RepRap, ‘humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine’ originally announced as ‘the ultimate recycling machine’.
Image: NASA Conference Publication 2255 (1982), based on the Advanced Automation for Space Missions NASA/ASEE summer study held at the University of Santa Clara in Santa Clara, California, from June 23-August 29, 1980.