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Should we be concerned about the appearance of autonomous robots capable of self-replicating?

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British researchers have been working for several years on a project that looks like it came straight out of a science fiction novel. Indeed, it is a question of developing robots capable of self-replicating and of evolving without humans. The goal? Send these machines to hostile or unfamiliar environments.

Drawing inspiration from Darwinian evolution

Here is the scenario: an army of small autonomous robots able to reproduce without human help. They would also be able to evolve in order to become smarter. The human would then send them to unknown or hostile lands. This scenario is not from a sensational science fiction book or film, but is one that UK researchers have been working on for four years now. British computer scientist Emma Hart, from Napier University in Edinburgh (Scotland), is leading this project called Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE). The latter was presented in 2019 at a conference of theIEEE Computational Intelligence Society. On February 2, 2021, the applicant published a column in The conversation here is a short excerpt:

“In the cosmos, what shape and size should the ideal robot take? Should he crawl or walk? What tools will it need to manipulate its environment and how will it survive extremes of pressure, temperature and chemical corrosion? “

As far as life on Earth is concerned, Darwinian evolution has provided the answers to these questions. When two individuals of a species reproduce, natural selection retains the most suitable genes for subsequent generations. Each living species on our planet has therefore evolved over time in order to adapt to its environment. It turns out that the ARE project is intended to resume the Darwinian process.

Emma Hart of Edinburgh Napier University.
Credit: IEEE Computational Intelligence Society

An accelerated process

“Parent” robots will combine their genes – or rather their computer code – to generate another 3D printed robot. However, the latter should in theory have better features than his parents. One difference is however noticeable. Where natural evolution takes millions of years, the process involving these robots would take just a few hours. In addition, the printing of the new robots as well as their assembly would occur without any human help.

According to those in charge of the ARE project, it will be a question of using this type of machine in the context of exploration or even the colonization of exoplanets, the mining of asteroids or the construction of lunar habitats. On Earth, these robots could be used for the exploration of oceanic rifts as well as for the dismantling of nuclear power plants. Let us mention in passing that NASA has a seat on the project’s advisory board.

Obviously, this scenario full of promises raises several questions. Indeed, we are talking about autonomous machines that self-replicate and evolve without any human intervention. The drifts could be numerous and could possibly threaten the human species.


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