Back in the 1940’s, mathematician John von Neumann first conceived the idea of self-replicating machines. Focused on large scale mining operations, he postulated that devices could be constructed to extract ore and raw materials, build copies of themselves, then go and extract more ore. In 1980, physicist Robert Freitas applied this idea to spacecraft. Until we crack the light-speed barrier, exploring the universe will be a tedious proposition. It takes forever to get anywhere. You could go into cryo-sleep for the length of the journey, and if nothing goes wrong with your equipment, wake up hundreds, possibly thousands of years later at your destination. Or, Generation Ships could be built whereby your remote descendants would complete the mission (assuming they didn’t go feral). Freitas said, why go anywhere? Let the machines do it! A von Neumann probe could be sent to a distant star system, mine a likely asteroid or moon, then build and send out copies of itself to other systems. Even at sub-light speed, such devices could populate an entire galaxy in only 500,000 years, due to exponential growth (take a penny…double it every day…in a month you’re a millionaire). The original probe could then go into ‘standby’ mode and wait to see what happens. If life were to eventually develop, a signal could be sent, something along the lines of “Eureka!” or “This guy, right here! Swarm! Swarm!” The monolith from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was just such a device, but not one that was content to sit around and wait. It took an active role in moving things along – interfering in our development, as it were. Apparently, the race that dispatched these particular probes never heard of the Prime Directive. Do. Not. Interfere.
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom
In 1986, scientist K. Eric Drexler applied these ideas to the atomic realm. In his book ‘Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology’, he proposed the idea of a nanoscale “assembler” which would be able to build copies of itself molecule by molecule, using atoms as raw material. The resulting swarm could then go on to construct anything you could possibly imagine, limited only by your ability to program the things. Food, clothing, shelter – all could be manufactured from the existing environment. Inject a hypospray of nanoprobes into the bloodstream to repair damage and stop aging. None of these devices have been built – yet. But researchers at IBM have already learned how to move individual cobalt atoms on a copper surface (they spelled out the letters ‘IBM’). The rest is simply an engineering problem. What could possibly go wrong?
Before they can start building, nanoprobes must first deconstruct something – anything – for raw material. If something went awry with this process, if the ‘build’ aspect dropped out of the equation, the entire planet could be transformed into a very large ball of…goo. This could happen by accident (the inadvertent creation of a runaway replicator), or it could be deliberate. One thing is certain, once these machines are created, we will immediately turn them into a weapon. There is an actual mod in the game of ‘Minecraft’ that allows this:
In the case of weaponized nanites, they could fail to stop deconstructing on cue. Or, there could be the case of an individual who has gone barking mad:
Fortunately (or un- as the case may be), working, programmable nanites are still a long way off. If you’ve ever seen old, herky-jerky, black and white movies and compared them to today’s cinema, that’s about where we are now in terms of nanotech development. Hopefully, by the time this technology is perfected, we will have made the transition to a Type 1 Civilization. So things won’t get too out of hand…