Self Replicating Probes

There is a post on io9 that really appealed to me today, and got the science fiction center of my brain running on full tilt.

It was entitled, How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy and it discussed two things: how we could explore the galaxy using probes that could build other probes, and why we haven’t seen anything like that in our neck of the universe yet.

I can’t really discuss why we haven’t seen any probes in our area yet, but I will, like the article, refute the idea that Carl Sagan and William Newman put forth that we haven’t because the advanced intelligence is afraid the probes would consume everything.

Carl Sagan and William Newman came up with a different answer. They were convinced that Tipler had it all wrong and that all this talk of probes was sheer poppycock. In their 1983 paper, “The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” they calculated that von Neumann probes, should they exist, would eventually start to consume most of the mass in the Galaxy. They concluded that intelligent civilizations would never dare construct such probes and would try to destroy any such device as soon as it was detected.

Even just with some quick thinking on my own, I can come up with ideas relating to how the probe should act, and simple ways to limit its growth and still see an amazing amount of potential data passed back to our society.

Firstly, the article discusses multiple types of probes, with specific functions and goals. I don’t know how necessary that is. I think one simple type of probe that can mine small or medium asteroids, refine the material, and find solutions to make other probes that can do the same thing is the main goal.

I believe the probes should be able to travel along, at any speed, even very slowly, constantly scan in a nearby range, and communicate back to Earth everything it can.

To limit growth, you could set-up the probes to use a generational system where each probe can create five probes, and each probe created by the previous subtracts one from the generational counter until you reach generation zero which is programmed not to create any more probes, but just continue to scan, move slowly and send data back towards Earth.

For example, if the primary probe has a five generational system:

  • 1 Probe Sent Out into the Universe
  • Creates 5 Probes (6 Total)
  • Each of those 5 creates 5 (25 Created / 31 Total)
  • Each of those 5 creates 5 (125 Created / 156 Total)
  • Each of those 5 creates 5 (650 Created / 806 Total)
  • Each of those 5 creates 5 (3250 Created / 4056 Total)

We launch one probe, and get 4056 of them scanning and sending data home. This allows for less up-front resources spent by us and potentially allows for a great deal of new and interesting data.

More likely, we would set a generational counter at one hundred or so creating millions of probes.

The system could be smart enough to adjust the generational counter based on loss of communication. If fifty percent of the siblings are unable to be communicated with, push generational counter back by one, craft five new probes and continue.

You could also have it do a basic scan for life, though we still haven’t gotten very good at that, and if we told it to focus on objects less than one hundred feet across, or moons without atmospheres, we could decrease our odds that our probes would negatively effect another life form.

Of course all of this production would require resources, and the amount of data we might receive could be really slow at first as it might be difficult to get the probes up and running with the materials needed to reproduce (for lack of a better term), but imagine if we could do this.

It would require a great deal of research and development, pre-planning, and a unique vision, but I truly believe that this type of technology is how we are going to learn about our universe.

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