The idea of self-replicating spacecraft has been applied – in theory – to several distinct "tasks". The particular variant of this idea applied to the idea of space exploration is known as a von Neumann probe. Other variants include the Berserker and an automated terraforming seeder ship.
- Theory 1
- Implications for Fermi's paradox 2
Applications for self-replicating spacecraft 3
- Von Neumann probes 3.1
- Berserkers 3.2
- Replicating seeder ships 3.3
Examples in fiction 4
- Von Neumann probes 4.1
- Berserkers 4.2
- Replicating Seeder Ships 4.3
- See also 5
- References 6
In theory, a self-replicating spacecraft could be sent to a neighbouring planetary system, where it would seek out raw materials (extracted from asteroids, moons, gas giants, etc.) to create replicas of itself. These replicas would then be sent out to other planetary systems. The original "parent" probe could then pursue its primary purpose within the star system. This mission varies widely depending on the variant of self-replicating starship proposed.
Given this pattern, and its similarity to the reproduction patterns of bacteria, it has been pointed out that von Neumann machines might be considered a form of life. In his short story, "Lungfish" (see Examples in fiction below), David Brin touches on this idea, pointing out that self-replicating machines launched by different species might actually compete with one another (in a Darwinistic fashion) for raw material, or even have conflicting missions. Given enough variety of "species" they might even form a type of ecology, or – should they also have a form of artificial intelligence – a society. They may even mutate with untold thousands of "generations".
The first quantitative engineering analysis of such a spacecraft was published in 1980 by Robert Freitas, in which the non-replicating Project Daedalus design was modified to include all subsystems necessary for self-replication. The design's strategy was to use the probe to deliver a "seed" factory with a mass of about 443 tons to a distant site, have the seed factory replicate many copies of itself there to increase its total manufacturing capacity, over a 500-year period, and then use the resulting automated industrial complex to construct more probes with a single seed factory on board each.
It has been theorized that a self-replicating starship utilizing relatively conventional theoretical methods of interstellar travel (i.e., no exotic faster-than-light propulsion such as an Alcubierre drive (which is a type of "warp drive"), and speeds limited to an "average cruising speed" of 0.1c.) could spread throughout a galaxy the size of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years.
Implications for Fermi's paradox
In 1981, Frank Tipler put forth an argument that extraterrestrial intelligences do not exist, based on the absence of von Neumann probes. Given even a moderate rate of replication and the history of the galaxy, such probes should already be common throughout space and thus, we should have already encountered them. Because we have not, this shows that extraterrestrial intelligences do not exist. This is thus a resolution to the Fermi paradox – that is, the question of why we have not already encountered extraterrestrial intelligence if it is common throughout the universe.
A response came from Carl Sagan and William Newman. Now known as Sagan's Response, it pointed out that in fact Tipler had underestimated the rate of replication, and that von Neumann probes should have already started to consume most of the mass in the galaxy. Any intelligent race would therefore, Sagan and Newman reasoned, not design von Neumann probes in the first place, and would try to destroy any von Neumann probes found as soon as they were detected. As Robert Freitas has pointed out, the assumed capacity of von Neumann probes described by both sides of the debate are unlikely in reality, and more modestly reproducing systems are unlikely to be observable in their effects on our Solar System or the Galaxy as a whole.
Another objection to the prevalence of von Neumann probes is that civilizations of the type that could potentially create such devices may have inherently short lifetimes, and self-destruct before so advanced a stage is reached, through such events as biological or nuclear warfare, nanoterrorism, resource exhaustion, ecological catastrophe, or pandemics.
Simple workarounds exist to avoid the over-replication scenario. Radio transmitters, or other means of wireless communication, could be used by probes programmed not to replicate beyond a certain density (such as five probes per cubic parsec) or arbitrary limit (such as ten million within one century), analogous to the Hayflick limit in cell reproduction. One problem with this defence against uncontrolled replication is that it would only require a single probe to malfunction and begin unrestricted reproduction for the entire approach to fail – essentially a technological cancer – unless each probe also has the ability to detect such malfunction in its neighbours and implements a seek and destroy protocol. Another workaround is based on the need for spacecraft heating during long interstellar travel. The use of plutonium as a thermal source would limit the ability to self-replicate. The spacecraft would have no programming to make more plutonium even if it found the required raw materials. Another is to program the spacecraft with a clear understanding of the dangers of uncontrolled replication.
Applications for self-replicating spacecraft
The details of the mission of self-replicating starships can vary widely from proposal to proposal, and the only common trait is the self-replicating nature.
Von Neumann probes
A von Neumann probe is a spacecraft capable of replicating itself. The concept is named after Hungarian American mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, who rigorously studied the concept of self-replicating machines that he called "Universal Assemblers" and which are often referred to as "von Neumann machines". While von Neumann never applied his work to the idea of spacecraft, theoreticians since then have done so.
If a self-replicating probe finds evidence of primitive life (or a primitive, low level culture) it might be programmed to lie dormant, silently observe, attempt to make contact (this variant is known as a Bracewell probe), or even interfere with or guide the evolution of life in some way.
Physicist Paul Davies of Arizona State University has even raised the possibility of a probe resting on our own Moon, having arrived at some point in Earth's ancient prehistory and remained to monitor Earth (see Bracewell probe)., which is very reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel.
A variant idea on the interstellar von Neumann probe idea is that of the "Astrochicken", proposed by Freeman Dyson. While it has the common traits of self-replication, exploration, and communication with its "home base", Dyson conceived the Astrochicken to explore and operate within our own planetary system, and not explore interstellar space.
A variant of the self-replicating starship is the Berserker. Unlike the benign probe concept, Berserkers are programmed to seek out and exterminate lifeforms and life-bearing exoplanets whenever they are encountered.
The name is derived from the Berserker series of novels by Fred Saberhagen which describe a war between humanity and such machines. Saberhagen points out (through one of his characters) that the Berserker warships in his novels are not von Neumann machines themselves, but the larger complex of Berserker machines – including automated shipyards – do constitute a von Neumann machine. This again brings up the concept of an ecology of von Neumann machines, or even a von Neumann hive entity.
It is speculated in fiction that Berserkers could be created and launched by a xenophobic civilization (see Anvil of Stars, by Greg Bear, in Examples in fiction below) or could theoretically "mutate" from a more benign probe. For instance, a von Neumann ship designed for terraforming processes – mining a planet's surface and adjusting its atmosphere to more human-friendly conditions – might malfunction and attack inhabited planets, killing their inhabitants in the process of changing the planetary environment, and then self-replicate and dispatch more ships to attack other planets.
Replicating seeder ships
Yet another variant on the idea of the self-replicating starship is that of the seeder ship. Such starships might store the genetic patterns of lifeforms from their home world, perhaps even of the species which created it. Upon finding a habitable exoplanet, or even one that might be terraformed, it would try to replicate such lifeforms – either from stored embryos or from stored information using molecular nanotechnology to build zygotes with varying genetic information from local raw materials.
Such ships might be terraforming vessels, preparing colony worlds for later colonization by other vessels, or – should they be programmed to recreate, raise, and educate individuals of the species that created it – self-replicating colonizers themselves. Seeder ships would be a suitable alternative to Generation ships as a way to colonize worlds too distant to travel to in one lifetime.
Examples in fiction
Von Neumann probes
- 2001: A Space Odyssey: The monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke's book and Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey were intended to be self-replicating probes, though the artifacts in "The Sentinel", Clarke's original short story upon which 2001 was based, were not. The film was to begin with a series of scientists explaining how probes like these would be the most efficient method of exploring outer space. Kubrick cut the opening segment from his film at the last minute, however, and these monoliths became almost mystical entities in both the film and Clarke's novel.
- Cold As Ice: In the novel Cold As Ice, by Charles Sheffield, there is a segment where the author (a physicist) describes Von Neumann machines harvesting sulfur, nitrogen, phosphorus, helium-4, and various metals from the atmosphere of Jupiter.
- Destiny's Road: Larry Niven frequently refers to Von Neumann probes in many of his works. In his 1997 book Destiny's Road, Von Neumann machines are scattered throughout the human colony world Destiny and its moon Quicksilver in order to build and maintain technology and to make up for the lack of the resident humans' technical knowledge; the Von Neumann machines primarily construct a stretchable fabric cloth capable of acting as a solar collector which serves as the humans' primary energy source. The Von Neumann machines also engage in ecological maintenance and other exploratory work.
- The Devil's Blind Spot: See also Alexander Kluge, The Devil's Blind Spot (New Directions; 2004.)
- Spin: In Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, earth is veiled by a temporal field. Humanity tries to understand and escape this field by using Von Neumann probes. It is later revealed that the field itself was generated by Von Neumann probes from another civilization, and that a competition for resources had taken place between earth's and the aliens' probes.
- The Third Millennium: A History of the World AD 2000–3000: In The Third Millennium: A History of the World AD 2000–3000 by Brian Stableford and David Langford (published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1985) humanity sends cycle-limited Von Neumann probes out to the nearest stars to do open-ended exploration and to announce humanity's existence to whoever might encounter them.
- Von Neumann's War: In Von Neumann's War by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor (published by Baen Books 2007) Von Neumann probes arrive in the solar system, moving in from the outer planets, and converting all metals into gigantic structures. Eventually they arrive on Earth, wiping out much of the population before being beaten back when humanity reverse engineers some of the probes.
- In the science fiction short story collection Berserker by Fred Saberhagen, a series of short stories include accounts of battles fought against extremely destructive Berserker machines. This and subsequent books set in the same fictional universe are the origin of the term "Berserker probe".
- In the 2003 miniseries reboot of Battlestar Galactica (and the subsequent 2004 series) the Cylons are similar to Berserkers in their wish to destroy human life. They were created by humans in a group of fictional planets called the Twelve Colonies. The Cylons created special models that look like humans in order to destroy the twelve colonies and later, the fleeing fleet of surviving humans.
- The Larry Niven later borrowed this notion in his short story A Teardrop Falls.
Replicating Seeder Ships
- Code of the Lifemaker: Code of the Lifemaker by James P. Hogan describes the evolution of a society of humanoid-like robots who inhabit Saturn's moon Titan. The sentient machines are descended from an unmanned factory ship that was to be self replicating, but suffered radiation damage and went off course, eventually landing on Titan around 1,000,000 BC.
- Manifold: Space: Stephen Baxter's novel Manifold: Space starts with the discovery of alien self-replicating machines active within the Solar system.
- Metroid: In the Metroid Prime series of games, The massive Leviathans are probes routinely sent out from the planet Phaaze to infect other planets with Phazon radiation and eventually turn these planets into clones of Phaaze, where the self-replication process can continue.
- The River of Time: In David Brin's short story collection, The River of Time (1986), the short story "Lungfish" prominently features von Neumann probes. Not only does he explore the concept of the probes themselves, but indirectly explores the ideas of competition between different designs of probes, evolution of von Neumann probes in the face of such competition, and the development of a type of ecology between von Neumann probes. One of the vessels mentioned is clearly a Seeder type.
- Stargate Atlantis: On the Stargate Atlantis episode "Remnants", the Atlantis team finds an ancient probe that they later learn was launched by a now-extinct, technologically advanced race in order to seed new worlds and re-propagate their silicon-based species. The probe communicated with inhabitants of Atlantis by means of hallucinations.
- Stargate SG-1: On the Stargate SG-1 episode "Scorched Earth", a species of newly relocated humanoids face extinction via an automated terraforming colony seeder ship controlled by an Artificial Intelligence.
- Stargate Universe: On Stargate Universe the human adventurers live on a ship called Destiny. Its mission was to connect a network of Stargates, placed by preceding seeder ships, on planets capable of supporting life to allow instantaneous travel between them.
- Storm: The trilogy of albums which conclude the comic book series Storm by Don Lawrence (starting with Chronicles of Pandarve 11: The Von Neumann machine) is based on self-replicating conscious machines containing the sum of all human knowledge employed to rebuild human society throughout the universe in case of disaster on Earth. The probe malfunctions and although new probes are built, they do not separate from the motherprobe which eventually results in a cluster of malfunctioning probes so big that it can absorb entire moons.
- Asteroid mining
- Bracewell probe
- Embryo space colonization
- Generation ship
- Interstellar ark
- Interstellar travel
- Self-replicating machine
- Sleeper ship
- Space colonization
- Transcension Hypothesis
- Comparison of Reproducing and Nonreproducing Starprobe Strategies for Galactic Exploration
- "Extraterrestrial Beings Do Not Exist", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 21, number 267 (1981)
- Sagan, Carl and Newman, William: "The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 24, number 113 (1983)
- A Self-Reproducing Interstellar Probe
- Nick Bostrom 2003 Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence, section 2
- The complete text of the story has been placed on the author's website at davidbrin.com
- Boyce, Chris. Extraterrestrial Encounter: A Personal Perspective. London: David & Charles, Newton Abbot (1979).
- von Tiesenhausen, G., and Darbro, W. A. "Self-Replicating Systems," NASA Technical Memorandum 78304. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1980).
- Freitas Jr., Robert A. "A Self-Reproducing Interstellar Probe," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 33, 251–264 (1980). rfreitas.com, also molecularassembler.com
- Valdes, F., and Freitas, R. A. "Comparison of Reproducing and Non-Reproducing Starprobe Strategies for Galactic Exploration," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 33, 402–408 (1980). rfreitas.com