Bill Joy must be tearing out his hair right about now.
Cornell University researchers have developed a methodology for self-replication by machines. That is, they've designed robots that can build copies of themselves. Although these robots can do nothing more than make more robots (as long as the components hold out, at least), self-replication has some serious applications for dangerous environments:
Lipson suggests that the idea of making self-replicating robots out of self-contained modules could be used to build working robots that could self-repair by replacing defective modules. For example, robots sent to explore Mars could carry a supply of spare modules to use for repairing or rebuilding as needed, allowing for more flexible, versatile and robust missions. Self-replication and repair also could be crucial for robots working in environments where a human with a screwdriver couldn't survive.
The scariest thing in the report? The note that one of the Cornell researchers has since moved to work at Microsoft.
(Reppy: "You appear to be making a duplicate of yourself. Would you like help with that?")
If all they do is assemble pre made parts is that really slef replication? It seems that self replication would indicate that they are able to engineer themselves. Not just assemble themselves.
First, the Cornell group's accomplishment is a fine piece of graduate level research. In addition to being a proof of concept, the modular nature of their approach suggests numerous valuable applications. It might be the first in a long row of dominos to fall, as other researchers, students, and even basement hobbyists try out their own novel designs.
Second, any references to scary stories about gray goo ought to be dismissed as irrelevant. Before someone writes another article or headline to that effect, they need to read this.