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April 25th, 2008

The wonders of mechanical self-replication

Most consumer products have a complex history, developing from raw materials to their current state. The stages of manufacturing are often overlooked by the end user, but they invariably involve either particular equipment or a skilled craftsman; in most automated processes, machines are the preferred method. Throughout the assembly line, each of these machines is highly specialized to perform one or two tasks: While one device might rivet two plates together, it cannot weld, glue, or cut as well. If the manufacturing process calls for such operations, they will have to be performed by another machine.

As if it weren't complex enough already, consider the equipment necessary to manufacture these manufacturing machines. The concept quickly develops into a tangled web of raw materials, generalized manufacturing techniques, and specialized assembly line equipment. There is a way to simplify it all, though. The technique seems bizarre to seasoned industrialists, but is strangely familiar to all biological organisms: self-assembly. Researchers have long toyed with proof-of-concept experiments utilizing baseball-size or larger robotic sub-units to arrange themselves into a functioning "organism," but one team of scientists at Purdue University has finally achieved the same feat at the molecular level.

"Autopoiesis" is a term derived from Greek words, which means "self-creation." It can be applied to evolution to describe the process undergone by inorganic molecules to form the building blocks of life. Biologically, it can be used to describe the eukaryotic cell, which produces more of itself through mitosis or meiosis. These are natural occurrences familiar to most of us on at least some level. Alternatively, self-replicating machines pioneered by scientists like John von Neumann can theoretically self-replicate, drawing from local resources to build more machines. These machines have been called clanking replicators, von Neumann machines, and universal constructors. Much of the premise of nanotechnology is based around self-replicating machines. The converse of autopoiesis is allopoiesis; current manufacturing techniques are allopoietic.


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