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Exploring the galaxy with replicating machines

C C Offline

EXCERPT: Most people, when they think about exploring the galaxy, think about sending out human colonies. It's natural to think we would explore it just as we do the Earth, it's the only way we know. To send machines instead of humans, especially machines that can replicate, may seem frightening. But - I'd argue, humans colonies are by far the most scary way we could explore the galaxy....

[...] Each replicator when it arrives at a new star starts making copies of itself to send to other stars. And stops - say after it's made at most a hundred copies, whatever, just some limit to make sure it doesn't go on endlessly making everything into copies of itself. These are all sent to other stars. Anything it makes in the same star is non self replicating, machines for particular tasks.

And stops if it detects any other instances of itself in the same solar system (have a radio signal it sends out to say "I am here" and first thing it does when it comes to a new star system is check for that signal. If it finds that another copy is already there - it switches itself off, destroys itself, or whatever).

After a million years or so, every star in the solar system is visited. Your replicator has made at most a hundred times as many copies of itself as there are stars in the galaxy, so there is no chance of runaway replication. And most of those copies it made are inactive, having switched themselves off or destroyed themselves because they arrived at a star that had already been visited. This may seem very wasteful, but it's just a tiny amount of material and energy from every star and as for human effort, there is none extra involved at all.

[...] Not the versatile, creative, evolving and highly autonomous Von Neumann probe of science fiction, able to replicate almost anywhere, and do almost anything. But with limited capabilities and exact replication, yes, maybe quite soon. [...] It may not take many decades, before we can print out computer chips from simple raw materials. And once we can do that, it's likely to be not that long before we can make at least a large scale "clanking replicator" which you can just put into space, say, and send it off to convert suitable asteroids into copies of itself plus something useful, such as solar panels, or solar sails, or space mirrors. Or use it to make self replicating ice miners to bring ice to space habitats for fuel or water.

The other missing piece in this puzzle is how to get the replicators to assemble the copies of themselves from their components, once made. But this also doesn't seem that far out of reach.

The big problem is - what if this self replicating machine starts to evolve? It could turn into something quite different from what you originally intended, and that's the reason for caution about self replicating machines, with the potential dire consequences explored so often in science fiction.

However, it could be made safe. Surely any sensible ET would do that - just as we make our knives with handles so that we don't cut ourselves every time we use them. I'm not going to try to anticipate how an ET would do this with experience of thousands or millions of years of technology. But, it is something we could do already, so let's see how we could do it right now with our current technology....

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