Can robots reproduce?

It is rumored that when Descartes left France to work as the tutor of young Queen Christina of Sweden he was asked by his royal student what could be said of the human body. Descartes answered that one could regard as a machine; whereby the Queen pointed to a clock and ordered him to “see to it that it produces offspring”.

Since this anecdotal conversation there have been many who imagined machines that reproduced. Stanislaw Lem in his novel “The Invincible” (1964) recounted 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. Interestingly, Lem’s lifeform exhibited swarm intelligence: relatively “dumb” parts united into a hyper-organism with hyper-intelligence.

John von Neuman

Philosophy and literature pointed the way that science and technology followed. Self-replicating machines have been proposed since 1802 when William Paley formulated the first teleological argument of machines producing other machines. A detailed model for mechanical self-replication was suggested by John von Neumann: a universal constructor that was both an active component of the construction as well as the target of the copying process. This meant that the medium of replication was at the same time the storage of instructions for the replication. This notion 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. Neumann’s brilliant insight predated the discovery of the double DNA helix by Crick and Watson.

Although von Neumann’s model works in the mathematical space of cellular automata it was a clear demonstration that evolution may influence mechanical evolution.

RepRap project: self-replicating machines

We may imagine several other ways of orchestrating robot reproduction. For instance 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 latter class, the “brains” of the autonomous robotic factory, would have to be AI. Could this ever happen?

On planet Earth safety legislation impedes, although it does not preclude, the development of a fully autonomous robotic factory that reproduces itself.  Nevertheless, planting such a factory on a distant planet is a different story. Mars colonization could benefit from self-reproducing robots preparing the planet for human habitation. George Dyson has proposed using self-replicating robots in order to cut and ferry ice from Engeladus (a frozen Saturn satellite) to Mars and use it to terraform it.

Nasty self-replicators

Science fiction has worked various possible scenarios for robot reproduction, the commonest of all being robotic life running amok. But maybe we are missing an important point here. In robotic reproduction guided by Artificial Intelligence evolution will play a minor role, if any. Error correction will be automated in a teleologically-guided evolution designed by the supervisory programs.

Unlike natural evolution where high-level consciousness and intelligence evolved very late as by-products of cerebral development, in robotic evolution they will be the guiding forces. Brains will come before bodies.

Ironically, robotic evolution will be Intelligent Design par excellence. Creators of complex machines will be themselves highly complex machines . In this scenario it is highly probable that self-replication will involve recursive self-improvement, until the original supervisory programs are superseded by the next generation of superintelligent designers. At which point we will have arrived at the singularity point of human civilization.

Darwin and the robots

Darwin’s theory of evolution, reinterpreted after the discovery of genes, states that successful genes survive and propagate across generations of living beings. Success is measured by the frequency of genes per generation which is a reflection of how well these genes adapt to – or are selected by – the ever-changing natural environment. Living beings are their genes, until culture kicks in.

Culture is a rare phenomenon in earth species. However, once it takes off it affects gene selection in the culture-acquiring species by means of self-replicating cultural information transmitted across individuals and generations. For example in humans culture-based mating choices determine which genes will pass on to the next generation, oftentimes irrespective of environmental selection.

Mozart, a prolific producer of memes

Although the importance of cultural information in evolution was appreciated since the 1920s it was Richard Dawkins who popularized the word “Meme” (from the Greek “Μίμησις” which means “imitating”). A meme is therefore an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Like genes, memes obey evolutionary laws.

Technology is a human construct which –  like art –  can be regarded as driven by memetic dynamics. Some ideas fail not because they were “bad” but because they did not affect (or infect) a good enough number of brains. The survival of ideas depends on the degree of their popularity. This has always been the case but, perhaps, today more obviously than ever. Just witness the huge budgets of advertising companies in our modern world where too many ideas compete for our attention and acceptance.

Busy robots

Robots developed both as a need in automated manufacturing, as well as a result of advances in control engineering. Like other technological artifacts they evolve thanks to a dense and chaotic web of cultural interactions that encompass new and unpredictable challenges, old blueprints, as well as chance eureka moments.   All this takes place inside and across the minds of their human designers. Industrial robots evolve in minds of their engineers through meme selection.

Memes have received a lot of criticism. Some doubt their philosophical depth, others consider them as pseudoscience, while many contend that they are just a metaphor not to be take too seriously. No one however doubts of the importance and effect of culturally transmitted information.

A prototype…

As the utilitarian application of robots moves from manufacturing to social interaction with human beings a new set of memes comes into action. Anthropomorphism becomes a specification in the design. But what is a “human” being anyway?

…and how it evolved

Our cultural understanding of what means to be human varies but nevertheless shapes the functionality, looks and behavior of autonomous non-industrial robots. New cultural forces come into play here. Human memory- individual and collective – recalls and infuses stored ideas, fears, hopes and myths into each new generation of robots. Our culture codified in our memories drives humanoid robot evolution. Till humanoid robots become self-replicating machines with recursive self-improvement capabilities, they will remain a mirror image of ourselves.