Self-Replicating Robot: Is It Alive?
The news media are all excited about a cube-shaped robot that, when stacked in threes, can make a copy of itself. The device, invented by Hod Lipson of Cornell, was illustrated in Nature.1 For a video demonstration, see MSNBC News. The BBC News quotes Lipson claiming that this achievement “shows the ability to reproduce is not unique to biology.” The machine doesn’t perform any other function than reproducing stacks of cubes, provided additional parts are provided in specific “feeding locations.”
National Geographic News says this impinges on the capabilities of living organisms:
The prevailing view holds that self-replication is an ability that organisms or objects either have in full or lack entirely. But Lipson’s team theorizes that self-replication isn’t a yes-or-no proposition, but exists at varying degrees.
The researchers present their new robot as an example of this theory.
The team says the extent to which something is self-replicating depends on many factors. For example, mineral crystals build exact replicas of themselves, but only in a solution. By contrast, rabbits reproduce themselves less accurately than crystals do but are less dependent on a specific environment.
Through understanding the principles of self-replication in nature, the team aims to make robots that are more robust and adaptive.
1Zykov, Lipson et al., “Robotics: self-reproducing machines,” Nature 435, 163-164 (12 May 2005), doi: 10.1038/435163a.
The gizmo is cute, but is as far from life as a toy from a boy. Its value is a demonstration of intelligent design. Without the cube being built to specifications with an appropriate energy source provided, nothing would happen. Without the lab assistant carefully placing the next cubes in the exact position where the robot could make electrical contacts with them, no replication would take place. If useful nanotechnology comes from these efforts, that’s good. If any speculator wants to imagine we are on the way to creating life, he or she has been watching too much Star Trek.
Not to underestimate the team’s interesting achievement, let’s see the cubes invent themselves without help. Let’s watch them find useful parts and reject harmful ones, and build something that actually performs a useful task other than stacking blocks. Let’s see it encapsulate all its information in a genetic code and build its own translation and fabrication system with error-checking. Let’s see it propel itself with an outboard motor and manufacture its own energy currency from protons harvested from sunlight. The simplest cell runs circles around this toy, without help from Cornell graduate students. Make the logical inference.
Footnote: a reader sent in this link to a chart of essential biochemical pathways on ExPASy.com. He said this and chart 2 represent only the known essential cellular processes – about 2% of what goes on in the cell.