The Power of Self-Replication

How can a small group of people have a big impact on the world? Develop a machine or service that is self-replicating or self-amplifying.

In a mundane way, artifacts such as iPhones and even shovels engage in human-catalyzed self-replication. People see them, then want them, then offer their money for them (or build them themselves, in a few cases), which provides the economic juice necessary to increase production and maintain the infrastructure necessary for that self-replication, like the Apple Store.

Self-replication can be relatively easy as long as the substrate is designed to contain components not much less complex than the finished product. For instance, the self-replicating robot built at Cornell self-replicates not from scratch, but rather from a set of pre-engineered blocks not much simpler than the robot itself. Using a hierarchy of such self-replicators, where each step is relatively simple but results in the creation of more complex components used in the next stage of self-replication, could provide a bootstrappable pathway to self-replicating infrastructures. Such a scheme also makes recycling easier — if a large machine falls apart, perhaps only some of its components need by discarded, and the rest can be reused.

At the root of a substantial number of transhumanists’ wild visions appears to be confidence that self-replicating factories will ultimately be produced. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how society would acquire the necessary wealth to implement changes of the type that transhumanists discuss. In fact, it appears to me that modern transhumanism evolved in large part out of enthusiasm for the idea of molecular nanotechnology in the mid-1990s. The ongoing philosophical connection of transhumanism to other Enlightenment movements is more of a post hoc project designed to make transhumanism palatable and comprehensible to larger groups.

At its core, I believe that transhumanism’s greatest accomplishment is identifying self-replicating and self-amplifying processes as humanity’s greatest opportunity and hazard of the 21st century — technology with the potential to allow us to transcend our material, physiological, and psychological limitations or, if handled poorly, cause a reprise of the Permian-Triassic extinction. You don’t have to be a transhumanist to appreciate this insight; you only need to be convinced that self-replicating machines are technically plausible at some point in the near or mid-term future. Indeed, a substantial minority of tech-oriented people seem open to the possibility. Here is a poll from a 2005 CNN article on RepRap:

Even more exciting to me than self-replication is the power of self-amplification. I define self-amplification as a growing optimization process that extends its own infrastructure in a diverse way rather than simple self-replication, where “infrastructure” is defined as both core structures and the peripheral structures that support them. Humanity is an interesting edge case here, at the boundary of what I would consider the transition from self-replication to self-amplification. We are able to create diverse artifacts, but our ability to inject diversity into our own bodies and minds through self-transformation or directed evolution is extremely limited.

There is an opportunity here for the development of a mathematical model that quantifies the information and structural content produced by a given self-replicating or self-amplifying entity. Humans like to think that we exhibit nearly infinite variety in the creation of artifacts, but this is untrue. We mostly create artifacts that we have cultural and evolutionary predispositions to create. If we realized how constrained our information-producing tendencies are, it would help us become a more mature species through better self-reflection.

Comments

  1. Gus K.

    Von Neumann’s self replication idea has spawned 3 great implementations. The first is modern technology like RepRap and 3D printing, which is the bulk implementation of von Neumann’s idea. The second is Drexler’s atomically precise implementation (“molecular nanotechnology”). The third is, arguably, recursively improving artificial intelligence (replicating and evolving in intelligence space rather than physical space).

    What if they are developed in that order? We seem reasonably close to making bulk RepRap universal assemblers. If we succeed, even without nano and AI, it will open up space colonization. A probe like Voyager or Viking, but with bulk self replication, can land on a C-type asteroid, mine it to the core, and slowly change its orbit to rendevouz with Earth.

    The U.S. manned space program just ended in next years budget. (It had effectively ended after Apollo, the Space Shuttle was a waste of money). RepRap type tech could reinvigorate a private space program by 1. Custom manufacturing SaturnV type rockets at low cost, and 2. Creating self replicating probes to launch to C-type asteroids (including the moons of Mars).

    Great post Michael.

  2. Gus K.

    The idea of Self Replication has played a major role in the course of my life.

    When I was 12 years old (in 1985) , I read in a children’s science book about Freitas’ 1981 NASA self replicating lunar colony proposal. I ordered the original paper, in microfilm, via interlibrary loan (the internet hadn’t yet been invented) as well as Arthur Burke’s edit of von Neumann’s original papers. I couldn’t understand the math at the time, but I knew that self replication would be enormously important.

    In 1991, I read Engines of Creation and recognized nano as the best embodiment of self replication. Once you think about this for a while, you recognize a continuum between crystals and proteins and biological life and nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Functionalism becomes obviously true. When I read about transhumanism in the mid 90s, I was not so much converted to it, as that I recognized that there is a word for people who understand the place of intelligence in the universe and the power of imminent technologies.

    I studied physics and computer engineering, and work as a patent litigator, because of that article on self replication that I read decades ago. Perhaps one day, I can make a more direct contribution. I have respect for you and others at SIAI and Foresight, who have thrown caution to the wind, and have made this your careers.

    Do other transhumanists (whether we use the word or not) have similar stories? I suspect many of us do.

    Thanks Michael.

  3. N01

    People cannot be stopped from acquiring what they want. If they like it, good luck stopping them. As a species our behavior is largely governed by the likes and dislikes hardwired into our being. We’ve made the world in our image, in the image of those biases; pollution, overpopulation, disease from over/wrong consumption. We’re not evolved to function efficiently at this level of resource-availability, hyper-abundance. Introducing abundance to any population with responses evolved to make most of scarce resources is just a bad idea.

    You can’t remake the world unless you first remake yourself, specifically, your mind. At its core, transhumanism is as much about transcending those once-useful, now ill-fitting biases, as it is about transcending the technological limitations.

  4. Good point No1. I am just talking about what I think started transhumanism, not the level of development it should be at. An enlightened transhumanism makes the mind a bigger issue than non-mental objects. That is why the transhumanist veins that focus primarily on the mind and intelligence are the most highly developed.

  5. Smifly

    Anyone who calls themselves transhuman right now is full of it. How can anyone call themselves transhuman when they have not yet in any way transcended humanity? You may support the creation of transhumans but you your self are not.

  6. I wonder what the results of a poll asking people if they were excited by the prospect of self-replicating machines would be.

    No1, you’re being overly pessimistic. While I firmly believe in personal modification, the species would benefit enormously from increased abundance. Current absurdities of consumption and distribution stem more from social structures than any fundamental human nature. We can and should change this situation regardless of whether we remake our minds through technology. Dreaming of scientific progress becomes dangerous if it causes you to underestimate present capabilities. This is one of the major pitfalls of transhumanism. Don’t get trapped in it.

  7. N01

    Summerspeaker, could you elaborate on those social structures? As I see it, the social structures have unfolded directly from our human nature which is social-power hungry. Owning more, having acess to more resources, however superfluous, has meant or increased the probability of victory in the social game (and the number of potential willing partners) as long as humans have existed. Now it has only entered it’s final, terminal phase, where acquiring more things has become as easy as clicking a button, and the number of things to own and their price range (which equates to their social status power range) has expanded beyond anything seen before by orders of magnitude. For the majority, success in financial terms equates success in life, as strongly as beauty equates good genes.

    A true transhumanist/singularitarian doesn’t dream, but actively works for progress.

    @Smifly: I agree that you can’t call yourself a transhuman, but it’s ok to call oneself a transhumanist, one who wishes to move humanity and specifically oneself toward a transhuman level of mental and physical performance.

    There are doubtless many transhumanists who through increased knowledge, understanding and uncompromising rationality alone have all but banished from their mind states the petty and irrational biases that the blind forces of genetic and memetic evolution have placed us at the mercy of, to such a great extent that they can be called at least proto-transhuman.

  8. If social structures come directly from human nature, why have so many existed and why do so many continue to exist? The kind of acquisitiveness you describe, especially its present manifestation, is not innate and universal but a specific cultural trait. It’s not even completely dominant now; plenty of folks continue to decline working for financial gain in favor of other pursuits. Your attempt to tie stuff hoarding simply to sexual selection seems odd considering how birthrates have declined in the richest countries. While there’s no doubt human nature limits our possibilities, it’s pure conjecture to blame our biology for all the problems of today and declare them insolvable. The species has only had access to powerful technology for the past century or two. Even if scientific progress stopped today, you can be sure social and cultural changes would continue alter materials conditions. At the moment, we have little idea about the range of feasible configurations, though history suggests considerable flexibility.

  9. Anyone who calls themselves transhuman right now is full of it.

    Obviously. Where did someone call themselves a transhuman?

  10. N01

    Where else would social structures come from if not human nature? Because we intelligently, rationally and carefully chose them after weighing all the possibilities?

    In my view, they’ve simply emerged from the resource allocation pressures in a resource-limited environment driven by the constant, unrelenting pressure to procreate. The social structures always fit the currently exploitable resources available to a population. Now we’re, in the developed nations, slowly adapting to hyper-abundance and turning down the dial, but there has been an overshoot. In other parts of the world, there’s no appreciable adaptation to the historically sudden increased energy availability: it’s being exploited like it’s the year -50,000.

    The human nature I speak of isn’t determined just by what goes on inside our bodies. Humans aren’t separate, independent entities; we’re part of a system, exchanging energy and information with our environment. Resource-scarcity plays a central role in shaping the social structures. The social structures in a post-scarcity world look very different because people can’t be persuaded by owning stuff. Humans living in the hypothetical full, true post-scarcity enjoy an absolute freedom and unlimited range of choice.

    Consumption is driven and guided by many things – like having nothing better to do, tastebuds, feeling of intoxication and acceleration, and lack of novel stimulus, i.e., getting bored with the old junk – but attracting a mate and gaining social status are major factors contributing to profligate consumption. The resources one commands are inextricably linked to procreative success; if you procreate, you’ve usually acquired enough resources to impress a mate. If you have no resources, your chances of mating are much lower. Natural selection favors the resource-acquirer and exploiter.

    The exact forms of the social structures are influenced by the level of scarcity in the particular society, but they are essentially the same no matter where or when: those with the most resources (material, financial, physical, intellectual) rise above the rest, regardless of political system or culture. They set the rules in their own favor and rule over the rest. Those who can, do it. Those who can’t, remain subservient to those who can. Just look at the world; where do you see major exceptions to these hierarchical social power structures, which derive from the unassailable rules under which evolution functions, namely the laws of physics?

    The problems aren’t insolvable because their origin is human nature. Human nature can be overridden and bypassed – transcended – to an extent. Transhumanists, being the best philosophically equipped for it, are at the forefront of the evolutionary trend of ever-increasing, ever-finer control over one’s own consciousness (and eventually minds created by us), the final frontier. Education and wealth approaching post-scarcity are factors in birthrate decline, but the reproductive strategies that human populations in different environments have evolved to employ play a key, decisive role in birthrates – immigrants to first world countries still have larger families than the natives even after acculturation. Human nature varies widely from hypersexuality to hyposexuality. People in populous countries still feel the need to procreate far above replacement levels despite overpopulation reaching calamitous levels. The gene is selfish.

    Ultimately we are, like any form of life, conceptually simple machines. In terms of energy, complex stuff goes in, simple stuff comes out. In terms of information, simple stuff goes in, complex stuff comes out. That’s the real core of human (or any human-level-and-above sentience) nature and everything else emerges from it.

  11. Social structures come from an incredibly complex interaction between genes and environment. Thanks our capacity for abstraction and the necessity of relationships between people, the latter includes far more than physical resources and production technology. As important as those things are, you ignore culture at your own peril. It’s the classic mistake of materialism, committed by thinkers ranging from Marxist to capitalist. Your suggestion that present political and economic hierarchies derive simply and deterministically from the laws of physics is the apotheosis of this error.

    Contrary to your thesis, a great variation of human societal arrangements have existed and continue to exist. Indeed, the best evidence we have says the species survived with dramatically less hierarchy and hoarding for the vast majority of its existence. Both ancient cultures and new revolutionary ideas have produced social power structures meaningfully different from what you believe to be the inherent pattern. Bosses remain in control overall, but with countless spaces of resistance at every level. These include Zapatista Mexico and the local Catholic Worker house. Historical and current exceptions, to use your term, give us ample reason to suspect that old-fashioned struggle can succeed.

    Even if the record were otherwise, marked only by oppression and submission, that would not exclude the possibility of improvement. We have no laboratory for the species and the planet; we don’t know what effect a shift of conditions would have. I must reiterate that it’s wildly speculative to consider modern social realities to be set in stone by selfish genes.

    Anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience all suggest that the brain is plastic. We can transform the world for the better even without the wonderful technologies on the horizon.

  12. Jefferson

    Gus K.: “Von Neumann’s self replication idea”

    We are hopefully entering the third paradigm of space exploration – the first was the Jules Verne paradigm (humans to the Moon in cannon shells fired from Florida) which laid the inspirational groundwork for the second, which is now drawing to a close – the Von Braun paradigm (humans to the Moon in huge chemical rockets launched from Florida); I propose the third be called the Von Neumann paradigm – self replicating tools sent to space, minimizing drastically materials, hardware and energy costs for off world exploration and colonization.

  13. Adam

    Concerned as in where the hell are they already I’m only getting older here.

Leave a Comment

Awesome! You've decided to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>