The Von Neumann Machine Universe


by Raymond M. Coulombe

John Von Neumann was a Hungarian American who pioneered the concept of self-replicating machines. In short, the basic idea is of a machine that can recreate itself. Picture a robot that can build another robot. There’s actually been a fair amount of real world progress made in that direction.

From that scientists have contemplated Von Neumann probes that could travel across space. They could also be used to terraform whole planets. Pretty heady stuff, but none of it Science Fiction.

There is a troubling scientific question concerning the fact that the whole universe hasn’t been transformed into self-replicating machines. The roadblocks to building them are fairly straight forward engineering problems. As some point in the distant past, a sentient race should have developed such machines. They’ve had billions of years to take over the universe. Where are they?

That’s where speculation can turn into Science Fiction. Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series revolves around Von Neumann machines that are actively hostile towards biological life. He’s perhaps one of the more famous authors writing about such machines. However, he’s far from being the only one. It has become a fairly common theme in speculative fiction.

On a smaller scale we have self-replicating nanotech machines. A common theme is to have them implanted in humans where they are programmed to keep a person healthy. Think of them as sorta mechanical white blood cells, running around your body doing cleaning and repairs.

Of course, there is the real concern that self-replicating microscopic machines could turn rogue. They could basically eat up the world around us -maybe even using human beings for raw materials. Nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler referred to that as gray goo. Eric kinda regrets coming up with that, but I love the fact that he did. For me, I can easily imagine run away nanotechnology turning the world into just a mass of microscopic machines.

Heck, I’ve used the concept myself, in a long out of print short shorty, Blood Bugs. There’s some really interesting real world science out there that can be seeds for amazing fiction.

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