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Why robot sex could be the future of life on earth


If self-replicating machines are the next stage of human evolution, should we start worrying?

When René Descartes went to work as tutor of young Queen Christina of Sweden, his formidable student allegedly asked him what could be said of the human body. Descartes answered that it could be regarded as a machine; whereby the queen pointed to a clock on the wall, ordering him to “see to it that it produces offspring”. A joke, perhaps, in the 17th century, but now many computer scientists think the age of the self-replicating, evolving machine may be upon us.

It is an idea that has been around for a while – in fiction. Stanislaw Lem in his 1964 novel The Invincible told the story of a spaceship landing on a distant planet to find a mechanical life form, the product of millions of years of mechanical evolution. It was an idea that would resurface many decades later in the Matrix trilogy of movies, as well as in software labs.

In fact, self-replicating machines have a much longer, and more nuanced, past. They were indirectly proposed in 1802, when William Paley formulated the first teleological argument of machines producing other machines.

In his book Natural Theology, Paley proposed the famous “watchmaker analogy”. He argued that something as complex as a watch could only exist if there was a watchmaker. Since the universe and all living beings were far more complex than a watch, there had to be a God – a divine watchmaker. Interestingly, Paley conceded that his argument would be moot if the watch could make itself. This detail has been forgotten during the cultural wars that followed Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.

An artist’s impression of a self-replicating nano robot – it has been proposed that similar machines could be used to colonise Mars

Self-replicating machines have been around, at least in theory, for decades. In 1949, the mathematician John von Neumann showed how a machine could replicate itself. He called it the “universal constructor” because the machine was both an active component of the construction and the target of the copying process.

This means that the medium of replication is, at the same time, the medium of storage of the instructions for the replication. Von Neumann’s big idea allowed open-ended complexity, and therefore errors in the replication – in other words, it opened up self-replicating non-biological systems to the laws of evolution. His brilliant insight predated the discovery of the DNA double helix by Crick and Watson. He went on to develop mathematical entities that reproduced themselves and evolved over time, which he called “cellular automata”.

Although von Neumann’s model initially worked only in mathematical space, it was a clear demonstration that evolution may influence mechanical evolution. Since then, engineers have taken the principle on board and have produced physical applications such as RepRap machines – 3D printers that can print most of their own components.

The next logical step would be to apply these principles in robot reproduction. For instance, we could have a robotic factory with three classes of robots: one for mining and transporting raw material, one for assembling raw materials into finished robots and one for designing processes and products. The last class, the “brains” of the autonomous robotic factory, would be artificial intelligence systems. But could these robots also “evolve”?


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