If self-replicating machines are the next stage of human evolution, should we start worrying?
George Zarkadakis writes: When René Descartes went to work as tutor of young Queen Christina of Sweden, his formidable student allegedly asked him what could be said of the human body. Descartes answered that it could be regarded as a machine; whereby the queen pointed to a clock on the wall, ordering him to “see to it that it produces offspring”. A joke, perhaps, in the 17th century, but now many computer scientists think the age of the self-replicating, evolving machine may be upon us.
It is an idea that has been around for a while – in fiction. Stanislaw Lem in his 1964 novel The Invincible told the story of a spaceship landing on a distant planet to find a mechanical life form, the product of millions of years of mechanical evolution. It was an idea that would resurface many decades later in the Matrix trilogy of movies, as well as in software labs.
In fact, self-replicating machines have a much longer, and more nuanced, past. They were indirectly proposed in 1802, when William Paley formulated the first teleological argument of machines producing other machines.