You can find the answer to this question, and to another one even more important, "should they be allowed to?" in this article published by NewsFactor Network.
In a recent issue of the journal Artificial Life, a group of Canadian researchers says yes despite warnings to the contrary -- most notably from author Michael Crichton in his new book "Prey," about self-replicating nanobots run amok.
To prove their point, the researchers have created a primordial soup that works like a digital DNA factory, where T-shaped "codons" swim in a computer-generated virtual liquid forming single, double, and even triple strands.
Like DNA, these digital particles "can be assembled into patterns that encode" information, claims robotics scientist Peter Turney in a new paper. For the first time ever, "we demonstrate that, if an arbitrary seed pattern is put in a soup of separate individual particles, the pattern will replicate by assembling the individual particles into copies of itself."
The name of their project, JohnnyVon, is a tribute to John von Neumann for his work on self-replicating cellular automata. [Note: you can even run demos on this site.]
But what would be the use of such self-replicating machines?
Nanometer-scale robots running the JohnnyVon program might be "the key to low-cost manufacturing," environmental cleanup, or any application requiring large quantities of robotic helping hands, Turney told NewsFactor. "Self-replication can make such large quantities economically feasible," he added.
Self-replication "is essential to nano-technology," Ben Gurion University computer science professor Moshe Sipper agreed. "We want to build one tiny machine that will go forth and replicate -- but not multiply ad infinitum."
For more information, you can read the abstract of their paper "Self-replicating machines in continuous space with virtual physics," or the full PDF version.
Source: Mike Martin, NewsFactor Network, July 10, 2003
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