Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Transformative Power of Self-Replication

Consider the power of self-replication. Biological systems are all products of self-replication, from the very first bit of self-replicating DNA, down through billions of years, entwined in every branch of the tree of life and our own DNA. A single cell of blue-green algae replicates itself geometrically over a summer and covers the entire pond. Our own cells replicate themselves over and over until the their lease on the blueprint runs out and we age and die. Biological self-replication is something we experience every day of our lives.

However, most of us are completely unaware of the development, right now as you read this, of our own brand of self-replication, using not the constraining materials of our biological heritage, but an entirely reinvented, technologically adaptive, system. Michael Anissimov writes in Accelerating Future:
Humanity’s task is to reinvent the technology of self-replication that the first single-celled organisms stumbled upon billions of years ago, but this time, do it right. Expand the range of possible forms. Boost the throughput and decrease the minimum duration of each self-replication cycle. Combine the adaptive elegance of the biosphere with the superior absolute performance and chemical flexibility of the technosphere. The final outcome is something far greater than both: the means to turn the inorganic to the organic and vice versa at arbitrary rates and generate new forms of more diversity and ability than either sphere could generate alone.
Of course, self-replication presents humanity not only with virtually unbounded opportunity to reshape our environment, end hunger, poverty and pollution and reinvent even ourselves; it also presents the greatest danger to our survival than any asteroid impact or pandemic ever could. The problem is that for nanomachines to be of any use, they must operate in enormous numbers. The generation of such numbers requires self-replication, and uncontrolled self-replication could easily destroy us.

To counter this danger, some propose a complete ban of such technology. But that would be a mistake, since unregulated development and deployment would certainly take place, and legitimate researchers and scientists would not be able to create defensive measures. Just think about the Internet as an example. There are threats and dangers that have been created by people with ill intent, but legitimate developers are able to stay ahead of them and effectively contain these threats. The same can be accomplished with self-replicating technology.

Right now there are serious people considering what defenses must be put in place to deal with any outbreaks of self-replicating machines, as well as methods of preventing or shutting down any such occurrences.

An article by Gregory Cochran, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, on, titled "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," says, in part, the following:
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"—it has always been that way.

Most men have been slaves of necessity, while the few who were not lived by exploiting others who were. Although mechanization has eased that burden in the advanced countries, it is still the case for the majority of the human race. Limited resources (mainly fossil fuels), as well as negative consequences of industrialization such as global warming, have made some people question whether American living standards can ever be extended to most of the human race. They're pessimists, and they're wrong.

Hardly anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance. Within a generation—sooner if we want it enough—we will be able to make a self-replicating machine, first seriously suggested by John von Neumann.

Such a machine would absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself. Numbers would grow geometrically, and if we manage to design one with a reasonably short replication time—say six months—we could have trillions working for humanity in another generation. You might compare this process to a single cell of blue-green algae, which replicates over the summer until it covers the entire pond. But unlike algae, a self-replicating machine would be programmed and controlled by us. If it could make it its own mechanical and electronic parts, it would also be able to make toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis, as well as the electricity to power them. We could make the deserts bloom, put two cars in every pot, and end world poverty, while simultaneously fighting global warming. It's closer than you think, since the key technologies are already being developed for use in rapid prototyping and desktop manufacturing. Aristotle thought that slavery would only end when looms weave by themselves: we're almost there.

I'm reminded of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia... He enchanted a broomstick to fetch water, but didn't know how to stop it. When he split the broom with an axe, over and over, each of the pieces took up a pail—and before you know he was in over his head. But where he saw a crisis, we see opportunity.
I believe that we would do well to become aware of both the dangers and the opportunities that are coming our way at breakneck speed through the transformative power of self-replication. Stay tuned.

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