Von Neumann Machines

Orginally proposed by John von Neumann and furthered by Freeman Dyson, the von Neumann machine is a self-replicating machine that creates copies of itself.

In the 1980s much of the focus for von Neumann machines, or Universal Assemblers were on nanotechnology. This was due to von Neumann’s experience in developing transistor technology. The fear was that self-replicating nanobots would quickly use all available materials in the world in order to make more copies of themselves. This is an old and inane fear because a form of self-replication is all around us: biology.

What is the benefit of using self-replicating machines? For one, it is more efficient and potentially quicker than building machines by conventional means. It allows in Richard Feynman’s terms: “More room at the bottom.” Things can be built smaller, more specific, and only small payloads are needed to transport a sample of the machines to a new location to begin the process again.

When you replace the word “organism” with “machine” it makes little difference. Organisms have the added benefit of survival through evolution. They can adapt, change, and build extracellular structures. Extremophiles can thrive in harsh environments. All of this provides a perfect storm for a simple-to-use/create von Neumann machine: microorganisms.

Over the course of several posts I will highlight some synthetic astrobiology projects that solve basic physiological needs like food, shelter, water, air, heat, energy, transportation, safety, waste, hygiene, tools, sleep and the laboratory tools and organisms that make these potential solutions possible. These von Neumann machines will pave the way for the colonization of the stars. ER.