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.


3.2 Browning Unnatural Living State (1956, 1978)

In 1956, the late Dr. Iben Browning (d. 1990) was selected to head a newly-formed independent Research Division at Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York. The first technical report [678] produced by the new Division, authored by Browning and published in December 1956, purported to present a “periodic table of the physical universe” – that is, a comprehensive classification scheme for research that encompassed studies of all material objects at all size scales. The table listed four different states of matter and the disciplines associated with them including: (1) the natural non-living state, (2) the natural living state, (3) the unnatural non-living state, and (4) the unnatural living state. Unfortunately, the fourth category was censored out of the report by Browning’s superiors at Bell Aircraft and did not see print until 1978, when the full report (with the deleted text restored) was reprinted by Winkless and Browning in their book Robots On Your Doorstep [679].

According to Winkless [679], writing about these events two decades later in 1978, the fourth category provided a discussion of “...robots that could reproduce. It seems not wholly implausible these days that machines might be constructed that could build other machines just like themselves. Given what we know about computers, we can even imagine that these machines might have artificially constructed and programmed reflexes and responses that would help them survive, avoid hazards in the real world, and seek the materials needed for construction of more of their kind. In 1956 this was more than Bell Aircraft Corporation could bear. The subject was just too far out, damaging to the reputation and practical effectiveness of the company. The robots were eliminated from the proceedings....” Dr. Browning left the company soon afterwards, perhaps discouraged when an assistant vice-president diverted a significant portion of the new Research Division budget to hire a psychic medium advisor for Bell Aircraft Corporation.

In his original 1956 report [678], Browning mentions only three prior discussions – by Karel Capek (Chapter 1), von Neumann (Section 2.1) and Moore (Section 3.1) – asserting that “the abilities of Man have enabled him to design devices that will reproduce. It is not unreasonable to expect that machines will reproduce themselves, in the light of current knowledge of automated machines of all sorts including computer controls. Huge memory banks can be made with trillions of bits of memory now. With optical techniques, it is clear that it is only a matter of time until memory systems can be made that are millions of times larger.” Browning then named a few of the future fields of study that might deal with self-replicating robots, including “robot culturing” and “machine (or robot) husbandry” to produce “simple self-reproducing robots”; “psycho-robotics” for the study of “hetero-functional robots” and various “robotypes”; and “socio-robotics” which would study communities of various robotypes using “community robodynamics”, or entire robotic populations using “gross robodynamics”.


Last updated on 1 August 2005