Extraterrestrial Impact of Self Replicating Systems

The issue of closure (total self-sufficiency) is one of the fundamental problems in designing self-replicating systems. In an arbitrary SRS unit, there are three basic requirements necessary to achieve closure: (1) matter closure; (2) energy closure; and (3) information closure. In the case of matter closure, engineers ask: Can the SRS unit manipulate matter in all the ways that are needed for complete self-construction? If not, the SRS unit has not achieved matter or material closure. Similarly, engineers ask whether the SRS unit can generate a sufficient amount of energy that is needed and in the proper form to power the processes that are needed for self-construction. Again, if the answer is no, then the SRS unit has not achieved energy closure. Finally, engineers must ask: Does the SRS unit successfully command and control all the processes that are necessary for complete self-construction? If not, information closure has not been achieved.

If the machine device is only partially self-replicating, then engineers say that only partial closure of the system has occurred. In this case, some essential energy, or information must be provided from external sources, or else the machine system would fail to reproduce itself.

Just what are the applications of self-replicating systems? The early development of SRS technology for use on Earth and in space should trigger an era of superautomation that will transform most terrestrial industries and lay the foundation for efficient space-based industries. One interesting machine is called the Santa Claus machine—originally suggested and named by the American physicist Theodore Taylor (19252004). In this particular version of an SRS unit, a fully automatic mining, refining, and manufacturing facility gathers scoopfuls of terrestrial or extraterrestrial materials. It then processes these raw materials by means of a giant mass spectrograph that has huge superconducting magnets. The material is converted into an ionized atomic beam and sorted into stockpiles of basic elements, atom by atom. To manufacture any item, the Santa Claus machine selects the necessary materials from its stockpile, vaporizes them, and injects them into a mold that changes the materials into the desired item. Instructions for manufacturing, including directions on adapting new processes and replication, are stored in a giant computer within the Santa Claus machine. If the product demands becomes excessive, the Santa Claus machine would simply reproduce itself.

SRS units might be used in very large space-construction projects (such as lunar mining operations) to facilitate and accelerate the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources and to make possible feats of planetary engineering. For example, mission planners could deploy a seed SRS unit on Mars as a prelude to permanent human habitation. This machine would use local Martian resources to manufacture a large number of robot explorer vehicles automatically. This armada of vehicles would be disbursed over the surface of the Red Planet, searching for the minerals and frozen volatiles that are needed in the establishment of a Martian civilization. In just a few years, a population of some 1,000 to 10,000 smart machines could scurry across the planet, completely exploring its entire surface and preparing the way for permanent human settlements.

Replicating systems would also make possible large-scale interplanetary mining operations. Extraterrestrial materials could be discovered, mapped, and mined, using teams of surface and subsurface prospector robots that were manufactured in large quantities in an SRS factory complex. Raw materials would be mined by hundreds of machines and then sent wherever they were needed in heliocentric space. Some of the raw materials might even be refined in transit, with the waste slag being used as the reaction mass for an advanced propulsion system.

Atmospheric mining stations could be set up at many interesting and profitable locations throughout the solar system. For example, Jupiter and Saturn could have their atmospheres mined for hydrogen, helium (including the very valuable isotope, helium-3), and hydrocarbons, using aerostats. Cloud-enshrouded Venus might be mined for carbon dioxide, Europa for water, and Titan for hydrocarbons. Intercepting and mining comets with fleets of robot spacecraft might also yield large quantities of useful volatiles. Similar mechanized space armadas could mine water-ice from Saturn's ring system. All of these smart space robot devices would be mass-produced by seed SRS units. Extensive mining operations in the main asteroid belt would yield large quantities of heavy metals. Using extraterrestrial materials, these replicating machines could, in principle, manufacture huge mining or processing plants or even ground-to-orbit or interplanetary vehicles. This large-scale manipulation of the solar system's material resources would occur in a very short period of time, perhaps within one or two decades of the initial introduction of replicating-machine technology.

From the viewpoint of a solar-system civilization, perhaps the most exciting consequence of the self-replicating system is that it would provide a technological pathway for organizing potentially infinite quantities of matter. Large reservoirs of extraterrestrial matter might be gathered and organized to create an ever-widening human presence throughout heliocentric space. Self-replicating space stations, space settlements, and domed cities on certain alien worlds of the solar system would provide a diversity of environmental niches never before experienced in the history of the human race.

The SRS unit would provide such a large amplification of matter-manipulating capability that it would be possible for humans to start to consider seriously planetary engineering (or terraforming) strategies for the Moon, Mars, Venus, and certain other alien worlds. In time, advanced self-replicating systems could be used in the 22nd century as part of human's solar-system civilization to perform incredible feats of astroengineering. The harnessing of the total radiant energy output of the Sun, through the robot-assisted construction of a Dyson sphere, is an exciting example of one large-scale astroengineering project that might be undertaken.

Advanced SRS technology also appears to be the key to human exploration and expansion beyond the very confines of the solar system. This application illustrates the fantastic power and virtually limitless potential of the SRS concept.

It seems logical that before humans travel into the interstellar void, smart robot probes will be sent ahead as scouts. Interstellar distances are so large and search volumes so vast that self-replicating probes (sometimes referred to as von Neumann probes) represent a highly desirable, if not totally essential, approach to performing detailed studies of a large number of other star systems, including the search for extraterrestrial life.

One speculative study on galactic exploration suggests that search patterns beyond the 100 nearest stars probably would be optimized by the use of SRS probes. In fact, reproductive probes might permit the direct reconnaissance of the nearest one million stars in about 10,000 years and the entire Milky Way Galaxy in less than one million years—starting with a total investment by the human race of just one self-replicating interstellar robot spacecraft.

Of course, the problems of tracking, controlling, and assimilating all the data sent back to the home star system by an exponentially growing number of robot probes is simply staggering. Humans might avoid some of these problems by sending only very smart machines that are capable of greatly distilling the information gathered and transmitting only the most significant data, suitably abstracted, back to Earth. Robot engineers might also devise some type of command and control hierarchy in which each robot probe only communicates with its parent. Thus, a chain of ancestral repeater stations could be used to control the flow of messages and exploration reports through interstellar space as this bubble of machines pushes out into the galaxy.

Imagine the exciting chain reaction that might occur as one or two of the leading probes encountered an intelligent alien race. If the alien race proved hostile, an interstellar alarm would be issued, taking years to ripple back across the interstellar void at the speed of light, repeater station by repeater station, until Earth received notification. Would future citizens of Earth respond by sending more sophisticated, possibly predator, robot probes to that area of the galaxy? Perhaps, our descendants would decide instead simply to quarantine the belligerent species by positioning warning beacons all around the region. These warning beacons would signal any approaching self-replicating robot probes to swing clear of the hostile alien encounter zone. Robotic defensive systems might also be sent to enforce the galactic quarantine, keeping the hostile species confined to a small volume of the galaxy.

In time, as first hypothesized early in the 20th century by the U.S. rocket expert Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945), giant space arks, representing an advanced level of synthesis between human crew and robot crew, could depart from the solar system and journey through the interstellar void. On reaching another star system that contained suitable material resources, the space ark itself would undergo replication. The human passengers (perhaps several generations of humans beyond the initial crew that departed the solar system) could then redistribute themselves between the parent space ark, offspring space arks, and any suitable extrasolar planets found orbiting that particular star. In a sense, the original space ark would serve as a self-replicating "Noah's Ark" for the human race and any terrestrial life-forms carried on board the giant, mobile habitat. This dispersal of conscious intelligence (that is, intelligent human life) to a variety of ecological niches within other star systems would ensure that not even disaster on a cosmic scale, such as the death of the Sun, could threaten the complete destruction of the human species and all human accomplishments. Astronomers predict that the death of the Sun will take place in about five billion years—when our parent star runs out of hydrogen for fusion in its core, leaves the main sequence, expands into a red giant, and ultimately collapses into a white dwarf.

The self-replicating space ark would enable human beings literally to send a wave of consciousness and carbon-based life (as we know it) into the galaxy. Sometimes referred to as the greening of the galaxy, this propagating wave of human intelligence in partnership with advanced machine intelligence would promote a golden age of interstellar development—at least within a portion of the Milky Way galaxy. How far this wave of con scious intelligence would propagate out into the galaxy is anyone's guess at this point.

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