Retrospect — Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata

Retrospect — Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata
NO EARTHLY POWER CAN COMPARE: Frontispiece of Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, and Power of A Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, by Thomas Hobbes, London, 1651.

Because airport parking is always scarce and cars are rented below cost on weekends, this is not a fair comparison. But the decline in the relative cost of machines versus the costs of space and people is real. Machines are being manufactured less and less by people, and more and more by other machines.

The current economic crisis, like a minus tide during a December full moon, is exposing human misunderstanding and misbehavior that normal water levels have concealed. And there is now no concealing that something new is going on in the world of machines. We are facing the first economic downturn to include free cellphones, more automobiles than we have room for, and computers that cost less than a dinner at a good restaurant yet run at billions of cycles per second for years.

One reason things look so bad is that we measure our economy in money, not in things. In an era of increasingly self-reproducing goods, we can suffer a declining economy while still producing more stuff than people can consume. There is a growing imbalance between the cost of people and the cost of machines. What prices are rising the fastest? Health care — the cost of maintaining human beings. What prices are dropping fastest? Computing — exponentially driving down the cost of information that increasingly governs the cost of new machines.

The 5 kilobytes of random-access Williams tube memory that spawned the digital universe (see MAKE, Volume 10, page 178) cost roughly $100,000 in 1947 dollars. Today, the equivalent costs one-hundredth of 1 cent — and it cycles at 1,000 times the speed. Similar cost reductions have occurred across the technological landscape, from operating systems to search engines to numerically controlled machine tools. Like rental cars at airports on weekends, products are being sold at nominal cost simply to make room for the new products that are about to appear.

“Why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?” asked Thomas Hobbes on the first page of Leviathan in 1651. Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given collective substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Leviathan suggested that an artificial intelligence would come to occupy the vacuum between the supreme intelligence of God and the earthly intelligence of humankind; Hobbes avoided being condemned to death for heresy only through his friendship with King Charles II, who awarded him a small pension and protection against his enemies, describing him as “a bear, against whom the Church played their young dogs, in order to exercise them.”

The era of digital computation that Hobbes predicted is now upon us, yet there is still an element of heresy to saying that Nature might grant life or intelligence to machines. Computers will only do what people program them to do! And machines do not self-reproduce! Only heretics disagree.

“Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically, we may say that it has a reproductive system,” wrote Samuel Butler, author of the 1863 essay “Darwin Among the Machines.”

“And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines? Each one of ourselves has sprung from minute animalcules whose entity was entirely distinct from our own, and which acted after their kind with no thought or heed of what we might think about it. These little creatures are part of our own

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George Dyson

George Dyson, a kayak designer and historian of technology, is the author of Baidarka, Project Orion and Darwin Among the Machines.

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