Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines

© 2004 Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004.


2.1 Von Neumann's Contributions

John von Neumann [3] “was born on December 28, 1903 in Budapest, Hungary, and died in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 1957. He earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest and an undergraduate chemistry degree from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland. In 1930 he came to the United States as a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, where he was made full professor in 1931. In 1933 he joined the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study as a professor and retained that post for the rest of his life.”

Von Neumann [3, 300, 301] began studying automata replication because he was interested in very complex machines and their behaviors. Von Neumann had a tremendous range of interests – he contributed to the logical foundations of quantum theory, was the co-inventor of the theory of games, and he worked on the Manhattan Project (contributing to the design of the implosion mechanism for the plutonium bomb). It is believed that his participation in the Manhattan Project and the tremendous volume of calculations* necessary for bomb design led him into automatic computing. Hearing of the ENIAC computer project at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, von Neumann was fascinated by the potential of a computer very much faster than any of the devices that had previously been produced [1011]. In the early 1940s there existed only simple relay machines and analog devices such as the differential analyzer. But the new electronic machines that interested von Neumann** promised to be perhaps millions of times faster than relay machines.

* Von Neumann had an uncanny ability to solve very complex calculations in his head, a source of wonderment to mathematicians and physicists alike. Goldstine [302] illustrated this quality with an amusing personal anecdote:

“One time an excellent mathematician stopped into my office to discuss a problem that had been causing him concern. After a rather lengthy and unfruitful discussion, he said he would take home a desk calculator and work out a few special cases that evening. Each case could be resolved by the numerical evaluation of a formula. The next day he arrived at the office looking very tired and haggard. On being asked why, he triumphantly stated he had worked out five special cases of increasing complexity in the course of a night of work; he had finished at 4:30 in the morning.

“Later that morning von Neumann unexpectedly came in on a consulting trip and asked how things were going, whereupon I brought in my colleague to discuss the problem with von Neumann. We considered various possibilities but still had not met with success. Then von Neumann said, ‘Let’s work out a few special cases.’ We agreed, carefully not telling him of the numerical work in the early morning hours. He then put his eyes to the ceiling and in perhaps five minutes worked out in his head four of the previously and laboriously calculated cases! After he had worked about a minute on the fifth and hardest case, my colleague suddenly announced out loud the final answer. Von Neumann was completely perturbed and quickly went back, and at an increased tempo, to his mental calculations. After perhaps another minute he said, ‘Yes, that is correct.’ Then my colleague fled, and von Neumann spent perhaps another half hour of considerable mental effort trying to understand how anyone could have found a better way to handle the problem. Finally, he was let in on the true situation and recovered his aplomb.”

** According to one writer [303], von Neumann initially kept his thoughts on machine replication quite private. When Norbert Wiener jokingly wrote to him: “I am very much interested in what you have to say about the reproductive potentialities of the machines of the may be an opportunity for a new Kinsey report,” von Neumann denied any contact with the media concerning his theories [304].

Von Neumann immersed himself in the ENIAC project, the first electronic computer program where some actual useful computing was produced. In late 1945 and early 1946, the first problems that were put on ENIAC are believed to have been calculations involving the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. Von Neumann, although he remained very much interested in nuclear energy and was appointed a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, was more fascinated with the idea of large and complex computing machines. He devised the organization still employed today in almost all general purpose computational machines – the concept of a serially processed stored program [1011], or the “von Neumann architecture” or “von Neumann machine.” After that work was completed he began thinking seriously about the problems of extremely large machines – their reliability, programming, design, and how to understand what they do – and he became involved with the many possible analogies to the complex behaviors of living systems [305, 306].


Last updated on 1 August 2005