Book details

Rise of the Self-Replicators

Early Visions of Machines, AI and Robots That Can Reproduce and Evolve

Tim Taylor and Alan Dorin

book cover


In Rise of the Self-Replicators we delve into the deep history of thought about machines, AI and robots that can reproduce and evolve. Although these might seem like very modern concepts, we show that people were thinking about them as far back as the mid-1600s and that the discussion gathered pace in the 1800s following the British Industrial Revolution and the publication of Darwin's On The Origin of Species.

Behind all of the work we discuss lie two central questions:

  1. Is it possible to design robots and other machines that can reproduce and evolve just like biological organisms do?
  2. And, if so, what are the implications: for the machines, for ourselves, for our environment, and for the future of life on Earth and elsewhere?

We show that the work we describe can be categorised into two main flavours: one concerned with the evolutionary potential of such technology as a route to superintelligent AI, and the other concerned with the general manufacturing capabilities of self-reproducing machines with potential long-term applications including the colonisation of other worlds.

We conclude with a discussion of what we consider to be the most likely directions for future work, emphasising that the management of risk in the development of this technology should be based upon a firm understanding of the issues at stake. A thorough understanding of these issues requires a sound appreciation of the history of the ideas involved. This book provides an ideal starting point in that endeavour.


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  • Provides the first comprehensive early history of machine self-reproduction and evolution.
  • Covers the period of roughly 1650-1960 and includes a summary of more recent work that has been covered elsewhere.
  • Synthesizes contributions from philosophy, science fiction, science and engineering.
  • Uncovers many examples that have never been discussed in the AI and Artificial Life literature before now.
  • Considers the relevance of this early work to current debates about the future of AI.
  • Primarily aimed at an academic audience, but also accessible to a wider readership.

Publication Details

Publisher: Springer International Publishing
ISBN: 978-3-030-48233-6 (softcover); 978-3-030-48234-3 (e-book)
DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-48234-3
Edition: 1st
Publication date: 31 July 2020


Additional Materials

Films of Lionel Penrose's explorations of physical self-replication

As described in Section 5.3.1 of the book, the British scientist Lionel Penrose commissioned two films to demonstrate his studies of mechanical models of self-replication. From the mid-1950s to the early-1960s he designed and built a series of ingenious and increasingly complex wooden contraptions capable of catalysing the formation of more of their own kind when provided with a supply of basic units to fuel the reproduction process.

Automatic Mechanical Self Replication (Part 1), 1958

Automatic Mechanical Self Replication (Part 2), 1961