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Robotics Technology

Self-Replicating Robots 305

ABC News is running a story that self-replicating robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Scientists at Cornell University have created small robots that can build copies of themselves. Here is a movie demonstrating the self-replication process. And the paper that will be published in Thursdays issue of Nature.
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Self-Replicating Robots

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  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:40PM (#12504604) Homepage Journal
    Quick, someone alert the SPCA!
  • So? (Score:5, Funny)

    by markana ( 152984 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:40PM (#12504606)
    /. stories have been performing this feat for years...

    (the trick is to get them to *stop* duplicating...)
  • hmm.. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Heem ( 448667 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:40PM (#12504608) Homepage Journal
    Would this be considered robot porn?
  • Not replication (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pmazer ( 813537 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:41PM (#12504611)
    That's a really cool robot and all, but it's not replicating itself. It's just taking more pieces, already machined, of itself to break itself in two.
    • Re:Not replication (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MankyD ( 567984 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:45PM (#12504655) Homepage
      It may not be creating itself from what most would consider "raw" materials, but from its own world view it is. It has a few fundamental building blocks from which it can create more advanced structurues - copies of itself in this case.
    • Re:Not replication (Score:2, Informative)

      by neil.pearce ( 53830 )
      Cough... 1959 Cough...

      L. S. Penrose. ``Self-reproducing machines.'' Scientific American, Vol. 200, No. 6., pages 105-114, June 1959.

      In fanciful terms, we visualized the process of mechanical self-replication proceeding somewhat as follows: Suppose we have a sack or some other container full of units jostling one another as the sack is shaken and distorted in all manner of ways. In spite of this, the units remain detached from one another. Then we put into the sack a prearranged connected structur
    • Re:Not replication (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Mr Bubble ( 14652 )
      I think the allure here is that the building blocks can eventually be extremely small, and, since they are uniform, easily shipped to, say, Mars.

      Since every part must be constructed from the same basic building block, construction algorithms will be the same (or similar) regardless of the component. I would imagine this rules out surprises and the need for specialized spare parts.

      Furthermore, inventory considerations and calculations are greatly reduced as the relative importance and fragility of various
  • by catbutt ( 469582 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:41PM (#12504613)
    Hell they might as well consider the raw material to be "robots that are powered off", and then have the bots push the power button on the "raw material" to create a new robot.

    • Why is this not self replication?
      Who said that replication must involve the original robot to create the robot parts? And even if it did, it would still have to create these "spare parts" from smaller parts anyway...
      The robot is replicating itself from it's own basic building blocks from what I can see.

      • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:08PM (#12504819) Journal
        Why is this not self replication?

        Indeed. Last I checked, humans and other animals couldn't self-replicate either, but needed to have raw materials preprocessed by things like plants first.
        • by andrebasso ( 772087 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:41PM (#12505045) Homepage
          The thing is - humans gather and harvest those raw materials on their own and are completely responsible for the use of those raw materials around them. Actually, it is very close to self replciation. This video shows no harvesting or cultivating of those discreet building blocks in any way. They merely pop into the frame. Very, very far from self replication in any way.
          • this is not reproduction, this is self-assembly.

            to change the definition of reproduction to also mean
            self-assembly is simply to decieve ourselves.

            unlike animals -- which do two discrete things:

            1. NUTRITION: break down the substance of their 'food'
            at a molecular level and transforming it into the
            content of their own bodies (in this instance, the
            electrical power for the servo motors and processing
            should come from what is being consumed).

            2. REPRODUCTION: creating the necessary structures
            such that a similar
    • I agree how is this different to robots on an assembly line assembling a car, change 'car' to 'copies of the robot performing the assembly' and you have a /. story. The only reason it hasn't been done before is theres no point?
    • by nacturation ( 646836 ) <nacturation.gmail@com> on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:06PM (#12504806) Journal

      Not to mention that they don't have wireless and carry less space than a Nomad.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:42PM (#12504615)
    Old Glory Insurance [robotcombat.com]

    SNL Skit, funny as shit!
  • If they can replicate themselfs like in scienfiction, dosn't that mean they will take over the world like in science fiction?
  • by jhfry ( 829244 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:42PM (#12504619)
    I can't wait till my neighbor's lawn mower and mine (both Friendly Robotics) can mate, the people across the street can never seem to keep their lawn mowed and are too cheap to buy one like ours... Hell I'll pimp mine out if it increases property values in my neighborhood.
    • A lawn mover that can mate? It's called a geese.
    • LOL

      I seam to have the same problem with some of the neighbors across the street.

      The house I recently bought came with a well-lanscaped yard... two owners ago. I have a brown thumb, but I appreciate such things so I asked my lawncare company to "take a look" and tell me what it would cost to "fix and maintain" things.

      Mostly, it's in desperate need of pruning, but I learned a few surprising things: as they were walking the property, they'd stop and explain the work to be done. At one point, they noted

  • by ArielMT ( 757715 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:42PM (#12504622) Homepage Journal
    I am not Sarah Connor, and I don't know anyone destined to stop these evil self-replicating robots, terminators, or Skynet. Just wanted to make that clear.
  • I for one welcome our new cube overlords...

    (Here's hoping for one day a self completing rubix cube).
    • Re:Well... (Score:2, Funny)

      by tktk ( 540564 )
      I for one welcome our new cube overlords...

      Would someone or something just go aehad and take over the world already?

      I'm tired of having to change my welcome banner every few days.

  • by localroger ( 258128 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:43PM (#12504633) Homepage
    So they can assemble spare parts into copies of themselves. Where do they get the spare parts? Oh right.
    • No, but suppose it was paired with another machine that did nothing but construct robot parts from raw materials and place them in a known location?
    • Clearly, what is needed is spare parts for self-assembling robots which are capable of producing more spare parts from simpler materials, e.g. a robot leg that can make more robot legs for the robots to assemble into more robots. Those simpler materials also need self-replicating ability. Just keep recursing until you've got extremely simple parts making more of themselves from dirt. Bonus points for self-replicating dirt!
    • And what, exactly, would these robots do with "grey goo"? That's for biological construction.
    • That was my thought exactly. The interesting advances will come when someone creates a process that a computer can control that takes some simple raw material (like plastic resin) to produce new parts, with the design of the new parts under the control of the machine itself.

      I envision a factory in which molds are created using rapid prototyping technology, purely from machine-produced 3D parts specifications. Initially, these designs could be hand-created by humans, but automated modifications could certai

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Bah, and where do these humans get off saying they replicate. Stars just hand them all the carbon they need on a silver platter. If they could do it from pure hydrogen, that'd be replication.
  • by ravenspear ( 756059 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:44PM (#12504641)
    If only webservers could replicate themselves whenever they detect the /. effect.
    • by mark-t ( 151149 )
      This could be done, if web browsers themselves would effectively function as mirrors for a site for as long as the person using that browser stays on that site. Operating somewhat like a torrent, the first visitor to a site would essentially act as a seed, and then future visitors would receive the IP's of other visitors to the same page, and they would download the page contents from eachother. As the number of visitors drops, the original server could be more readily able to handle seeding other visito
    • it would be the best robotic pick up line ever:

      server1 to server2: Please mate with me. I'm about to be slashdotted and I only have minutes to live.
  • by what_the_frell ( 690581 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:45PM (#12504650)
    "Please have your pets, er, I mean robots spayed or neutered".
  • the article talks about robots assembling copies of themselves by joining *three* pre-manufactured parts, which have magnetic joints for easier assembly.

    does not sound that impressive to me.
    And i find it doubtfully that noone was able to do this before. more like noone tried.
  • "Oh! Oh!" it synthesized. "What hard metal! Torque me baby! Torque me with a large magnitude of F-cross-r! Oh!"
  • by mark-t ( 151149 ) <markt@NoSPaM.nerdflat.com> on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:49PM (#12504682) Journal
    Reproduction is much more fun with two.
  • by Ted Holmes ( 827243 ) <simply.ted@gmail.com> on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:51PM (#12504701) Homepage
    In October 2004, I began tracking the rise of personal fabricators [blogspot.com]. Inkjets hacked into crude replicators.

    In March 2005, we discovered engineers at the University of Bath working on a machine that can rapid prototype and replicate itself [bath.ac.uk].

    Researchers Hod Lipson and Jordan B. Pollack at Brandeis University have coupled inkjet technology and software to autonomously design and fabricate robots [brandeis.edu] without human intervention.

    Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, who runs a one-semester smash-hit class called "How to Make Almost Anything", is determined to produce affordable, replicating personal fabricators by 2025 [blogspot.com].

    And today Hod Lipson has announced the arrival of simple self replicating robots with enormous potential.


    More complex shapes are possible in principle, such as adding grippers, cameras, new sensors etc. to modules. A robot could assemble itself into a new structure to deal with novel events. Also points a way to self-repairing robots.

    Nanomachines: Lipson is interested in making these machines at microscale. That could drive major advances in Nanotechnology because huge numbers of robots are needed to manufacture things at a molecular scale. Self-replication is how biology does it.


    Could change the way almost everything is manufactured. Machines that clone themselves are a key factor in the near horizon revolution of digital fabrication [blogspot.com].

    The movie (accelerated 4X) is eerie to watch. It's easy to imagine a clutter of cubes picking themselves up and walking towards you.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @07:59PM (#12504753) Homepage
    How is this any more impressive than what Edward F. Moore did in 1959? There was a Scientific American article about it, and I saw him demonstrate it at a lecture in the late sixties.

    Basically he had a two-dimension row of pieces, rather like jigsaw puzzle pieces, held upright between two pieces of plexiglass. The pieces had just the right shape; they were basically diamonds with a truncated bottom (so they sat in one particular orientation) and sides. Initially they'd all be sitting flat. He would "add heat" by shaking the contraption laterally. Nothing would happen, because the blunt ends would hit against each other.

    Then he'd take two of them and tilt them and slide them together, producing a single two-celled "organism." There were little hook-like projections that held them together.

    He would shake the thing again. This time, because the two "cells" were tilted, their ends would scoop up underneath the blunt ends of the neighboring "cells," tilting them up into the proper position to hook together too.

    So, when he shook the thing in its initial state, nothing would happen. But when locked two of them together into a "creature" and shook them, they caused the other "cells" to assemble into two-celled organisms just like the original one.

    In other words, the organism had created copies of itself.

    It really worked; there was no deception; after the lecture practically everyone swarmed around and played with the thing and it didn't require any sleight-of-hand twists of the wrist.

    I thought it was a strained tour-de-force then, and I think these "self-replicating robots" are just a fancier example of the same thing.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I thought it was a strained tour-de-force then, and I think these "self-replicating robots" are just a fancier example of the same thing.

      We are just fancier examples of the same thing.
    • I don't see anything coming up for Edward Moore, but there's a June 1959 Scientific American article by L.S. Penrose (Any relation to Roger Penrose?) that seems to fit the bill: "Self-Reproducing Machines"

      I haven't read the article though, just seen the title, so maybe Moore had one in the same issue.
  • This reminds me of the movie "Screamers" and the evil self replicating robots.

    (actually, not a bad movie.)

    Or.. how long before Skynet decides we're all rubbish and tries to obliterate us? ;)
  • Dyson (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rand310 ( 264407 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:02PM (#12504780)
    Freeman Dyson had the great example of self-replicating robots in his book 'Disturbing the Universe.'

    Imagine sending a quarter-pound payload of a well-programed robot of such construction to something like one of Jupiter's icy moons. It is as small as needed to do the following tasks: replicating twice, grab a small piece of the ice on the moon as cargo, and then launching itself with some element in the ice as fuel towards mars. That's all it is programmed to do.

    In x amount of time you have a mars with oceans. Astroid mining could also work on similar principles.

    Regardless of how plausible or crazy the above ideas are, the concept is gorgeous for people... The investment in one such machine can yield payoffs of millions/billions of man-hours of labor, in places man can exist etc.

    There is always the observation of slavery/exploitation if such a machine can replicate. Or even fears of Matrix/virus-like behavior which continues uncontrollably. But it is an interesting idea to think about. Rarely can a human investment of time provide such a staggering turnaround in product.

    Interesting concept, even if it does still resemble science-fiction.
    • Replicating itself twice out of what? Ice? And why does the robot itself have to return, when all you really want is the payload? Hell, have it stay there and continue to mine ice, using a railgun to shoot it at Mars, and letting ballistics do the rest... of course, this will make living on Mars quite interesting until these self-replicating robots run out of ammo!
  • by Bifurcati ( 699683 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:03PM (#12504785) Homepage
    As other posters have pointed out, this sort of self replication is a long way from the feared "grey goo" effect, where the robots eventually cover the planet. Here, the pieces are pre-assembled, and the robots simply combine them in the appropriate way to make more robots. The "grey goo" idea is a particular feature of nanobots, where the robots are on the order of a nanometre across, and can replicate using simple compounds (e.g., the robots in Michael Crichton's Swarm "eat" metals from computers and other electronics and reform them into the necessary circuits and mechanical bits). The idea is that if enough of them got together, we would see a grey goo, that could self replicate and spread.

    But it does mean that self-replicating robots are, unsurprisingly, possible, and that if the robots could be made simpler, they could perhaps replicate using simpler pieces, and so forth.

    More importantly, if you gave the robots a whole bunch of pieces (basically, the equivalent of Lego blocks) they could perhaps replicate and reproduce into shapes that best suit their environment - they're modular and expandable, which might have important applications (e.g., rescue, exploration, etc).

    • It also means you could make a different robot that produces the pre-made blocks from raw materials. Have the first set also be able to assemble a 'factory' robot, and all you need to create a whole ton of these things is a handful of self-assembling robots and a smattering of parts.

      You could imagine air/space dropping them into an area with their required resources, let them spend a while making and assembling themselves, then order them off to do your mission.

      Would make missions in hazardous areas or sp
  • by TheGuano ( 851573 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:03PM (#12504789)
    I love technology as much as the next guy (maybe not in this crowd), but seeing that thing sent shivers up my spine.

    I can just see them in nano-scale, coursing through my blood and rewiring my brain.

  • Their long-term plan is to design robots made from hundreds or thousands of identical basic modules.

    These could repair themselves if parts fail, reconfigure themselves to better perform the task they have been set, or even to make extra helpers.

    Until one of them decides to attach all the modules to itself and become the uberbot.

    If they are autonomous then why would they disassemble themselves to give up their bodies to another? If they are all centrally controlled then this is not as remarkable a

    • Autonomous is not synonymous with sentient. We already have autonomous and semi-autonomous robots, go look at robocup for example. Autonomous just means robots act autonomous, without a human directing them from a control panel.
  • What's next? Will they roll up into the ball shape and terrorize the neighborhood? Shift into the dog shape and be taken home by some poor unsuspecting child?
    The horror!
  • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:06PM (#12504807)
    Well, if they make one that looks like Amanda Tapping, sign me up. I don't even care if it's evil!

  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) ( 613870 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:10PM (#12504832) Journal
    Rather than have robots made out of prefabricated cubes, why not prefabricate the entire robot. Then when a robot wants to reproduce it just has to say "make it so" and lo! and behold! there's another prefabricated robot sitting there. I don't see that this is any less reproduction than this example. Of course, if you use the log probability measure mentioned in the paper it doesn't score too well but that could be fixed by giving each robot an on/off switch that another robot can press.

    I'm sure I've seen more bogus papers than usual go by recently.

  • "Space applications clearly come to mind. If you're sending a robot to one of Jupiter's moons, and the robot breaks, then the mission is over," Dr Lipson told the BBC.

    This is great. I wonder if Dr Lipson picked that scenario knowing the images it would conjure up. Even better if you consider that The BBC had a cameo in the film.
  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:22PM (#12504912) Journal
    Lab web page: Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL) [cornell.edu]

    Page on their self-replication research [cornell.edu] (coral cache [nyud.net])

    Their cubes seem pretty cool... basically a physical variant of cellular automata. The Nature paper is neat but necessarily short. Here's an older paper with some more details:

    Designed and Evolved Blueprints For Physical Self-Replicating Machines [nyud.net]

    Efstathios Mytilinaios, David Marcus, Mark Desnoyer and Hod Lipson, (2004)

    Abstract: Self-replication is a process critical to natural and artificial life, but has been investigated to date mostly in simulation and in abstract systems. The near absence of physical demonstrations of self-replication is due primarily to the lack of a physical substrate in which self-replication can be implemented. This paper proposes a substrate composed of simple modular units, in which both simple and complex machines can construct and be constructed by other machines in the same substrate. A number of designs, both hand crafted and evolved, are proposed.
  • Is it just me or does this seem VERY basic? Any idiot can stack blocks how difficult is it to tell them blocks to stack? They even give them magnets to do it..
  • This is the singularity!
  • This looks like a motorized version of distrubuted processing.

    Essentially, load 10 boxes with the software to move a few motors, once they link via a protocol (let's say wireless), they accept signals from the existing "head". Remember, all software, including the "head" code is on all machines. Motors wiggle based on general commands from the head, translated to physical movements by the box attached to the motor.

    Now add a few more boxes, preloaded, to the space. They contact and join, following the s
  • von Neumann wrote about self-reproduction in the late 40's and early 50's. He talked about two kinds of self-reproduction: "trivial" and "true". The trivial kind is what we see here, parts designed to force other similar parts into alignment. People are constantly coming up with demos like this. It's been done with wooden blocks, robot parts, and molecules. Ho-hum.

    But von Neumann postulated that true self-reproduction, the biological kind, required a device called a Universal Constructor that could, given

  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) ( 613870 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:50PM (#12505110) Journal
    ...to synthesize the required parts in just the right place out of midair. I'm sure this technology could have uses beyond self-reproducing robots though I haven't thought of one yet.
  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @08:52PM (#12505124)
    Equip each robot with a gun, then program it to point the gun at it's assembler and demand that they make another copy... now there is an effective self-replicating robot!
  • I won't start getting worried until they can build *improved* versions of themselves.
  • FOOLS! (Score:3, Funny)

    by quakeroatz ( 242632 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @09:20PM (#12505312) Journal
    One day they'll build a board with a nail so big, it will destroy them all!


  • It seems the robots only operate on the 5 squares in that table, which have ends formed like the ends of the robots themselves. That means that both the "new" robots are connected to each other.

    They are not two robots at all, just one with part of it hidden under a table! This is an excelent advancement in the the use of interchangable parts, but Eli Whitney got to it first.
  • by MetalliQaZ ( 539913 ) on Wednesday May 11, 2005 @10:32PM (#12505776)
    ...because some inconsiderate dumbass posted a direct link to a 12 MB movie on the front page of slashdot.

    I foresee my karma going down the shitter.

  • "Although the machines we have created are still simple compared with biological self-reproduction, they demonstrate that mechanical self-reproduction is possible and not unique to biology,

    All it takes is beer
  • Robot replication is a physical, analog process. Replicating their instructions (how to replicate) will see errors. Among DNA's best tricks is its transcription error suppression systems. Until we get as good, our robots will see mutations in their code. With a lot of luck, they'll figure out the error suppression tricks for us.
  • Anyone remember that Philip K. Dick short story that the movie "Screamers" was based on?

    "Second Variety" I think it was. Check out either the book or the movie. Interesting discussion about AI and self-replicating robots and such.
  • Am I the only one that sees this as the next rubiks cube - only it solves itself? (Kids are lazy these days anyway)
  • "the paper that will be published in Thursdays issue of Nature."

    Obviously... they mean Nurture ;-)

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.