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The ability to create self-replicating machines can give some very useful benefits. So what is the problem with creating this type of stuff?

Let's say we have two pieces of equipment - 3d printers and robotic arms. These items are already available and are easy to create.

It looks like they are enough to create self-replicating machines. 3d printers are able to print any details for arms and printers. Robotic arms are able to assemble other arms and printers. Both equipment items are able to create almost any other kind of stuff.

So we need only one set of 3d printers and arms with a basic program to start the process. The more sophisticated programs can be added later to create almost any type of equipment from design. If there are enough rough materials, this process can be scaled indefinitely and allow to construct, gather resources, etc.

So, what is the problem with that scheme? Why is is not used already yet everywhere?

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    $\begingroup$ Why would you want a world littered with self-replicated robot arms and 3D printers? $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2021 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ Well, that's a great way to handle almost all the problems with modern humanity. Arms (i.e. general manipulators) are a model of ability to create staff as an equivalent on humans arms. Self-replication means a way to quickly scale production to any level, for example to help build a lot of structures for solar system mass production, habitable areas, asteroid mining etc. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Oct 29, 2021 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @OliverMason In fairness, I think that was just an example. My understanding is that robotic arms for tele-surgery are being implemented. Perhaps NN's will be able to fully automate routine, low-level surgical procedures in the not-too-distant future! There has definitely been a lot of though on this subject in the speculative literature, although I think much of the focus is on potential, future nano-tech, as opposed macro-scale machines. We can do amazing things with 3D printing, but in most cases still seem to be using human assemblers in chemically toxic environments. $\endgroup$
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 29, 2021 at 22:28

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We also discussed this topic at physics.stackexchange, take a look at physics related issues there. To summarize all the comments there, here is my answer to this topic as a complilation of all issues in discussions (feel free to propose your explanations).

It looks like there are no special technical problems with that. Basically, both arms (i.e. manipulators) and 3d printers consist of servomotors, wires, chips and structural mechanical elements. They all can be easily 3d printed, that's no doubt I guess.

As often seen in modern science/research/development, the only problem is with funding. The problems with this scale require some solid funds for a large amount of time. That is not compatible with modern financial world, that is aiming at low term profits in simple stuff. Both states and commercial sectors (venture firms) are not currently able or willing to fund it due to uncertainties.

The solution might be in centralized fundings using tax from states via UN or something. It may be like a cross-state global research and development fund (with let's say 1% of GDP per state shares). The results (products and tech blueprints) may be shared to participants due to their share part. But that require a lot of changes/efforts and currently is not available in the nearest future unfortunately.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with this. I suspect the only reason Amazon warehouses are not today fully automated, with only engineers on staff to fix the machines, is b/c it's still cheaper to employ humans. (There was a fairly recent article on NYT about how Bezos was blowing though the local labor pools such that they're running out of people to hire for those jobs in a dehumanizing condition, which to me indicated Bezos thought he could fully automate sooner than has been practical.) It all boils down to economics—everything in the biological and computing world! $\endgroup$
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 29, 2021 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ It's also notoriously difficult for robots topick things up; this also applies to supermarket centres, eg with fresh fruit. $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2021 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ I guess picking things with arms is not a big issue. At least it is easily possible to use predefined standards-based containers to operate stuff. We don't need any AI (or human-like robots etc.) at all. It is quite enough to use basic predefined operations as well (a kind of modern assembly lines in mass production, just like in modern automobile industry). $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ Really hate to do it, but it looks like this answer is just the most explaining one. So I will mark it as answer for a moment. Feel free to add your explanation as well. If it will be well-argumented enough, I will change the most correct answer to your version. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, we also started a discussion about cross-state global research and development funds at economics.stackexchange. So feel free to add some economics related issues and ideas there, just in case. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 4:16
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This is a high-level answer.

  • Much of the focus has been on nanotech as opposed to self-replication on the macro scale

Search of Google Scholar with keywords "self replicating machines molecular nano" reveals a slew of papers, especially in the early 2000's, with diminishment in activity subsequently. (My recollection is it turned out to be harder than initially hoped, but CRISPR has gotten a lot of attention in regard to molecular scale machines.)

There may be a weakening distinction between what constitutes a machine at this scale subsequent to CRISPR, i.e. organic machines vs. inorganic machines.

Biology provides numerous examples of self-replicating machines, but artificially engineering such complex systems remains a formidable challenge. In particular, although simple artificial self-replicating systems including wooden blocks magnetic systems modular robots5,6 and synthetic molecular systems have been devised, such kinematic self-replicators are rare compared with examples of theoretical cellular self-replication. One of the principal reasons for this is the amount of complexity that arises when you try to incorporate self-replication into a physical medium

Kim, J., Lee, J., Hamada, S. et al. Self-replication of DNA rings. Nature Nanotech 10, 528–533 (2015)

Programmable manufacturing systems capable of self-replication closely coupled with (and likewise capable of producing) energy conversion subsystems and environmental raw materials collection and processing subsystems (e.g. robotics) promise to revolutionize many aspects of technology and economy, particularly in conjunction with molecular manufacturing. The inherent ability of these technologies to self-amplify and scale offers vast advantages over conventional manufacturing paradigms, but if poorly designed or operated could pose unacceptable risks.

Rabani E.M., Perg L.A. (2019) Demonstrably Safe Self-replicating Manufacturing Systems. In: Schmorrow D., Fidopiastis C. (eds) Augmented Cognition. HCII 2019. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 11580. Springer, Cham.

However, search using the terms "self replicating machines macro scale" does return many results, some recent.

This may be more what you're looking for:

This paper introduces the concept of a physical self-replicating machine for deployment on the Moon utilizing raw material available on the Moon. A detailed but selective review is given in order to highlight clearly the novel aspects of this concept. In particular, it is hypothesized that if electric motors and vacuum tubes can be 3D printed from the limited repertoire of lunar materials, 3D printing constitutes a universal construction mechanism. This follows from the observation that mechatronic components are the constituent parts of all robotic mechanisms. In particular, we examine the use of 3D printing of electronics as a physical instantiation of a Turing machine. Several general implications of such a self-replicator are considered including whether it constitutes artificial life and mitigation against runaway replication.

Alex Ellery; September 4–8, 2017. Building physical self-replicating machines. Proceedings of the ECAL 2017, the Fourteenth European Conference on Artificial Life. ECAL 2017, the Fourteenth European Conference on Artificial Life. Lyon, France. (pp. pp. 146-153).

Possibly this type of endeavor has more chance of serious funding, since the long-term rewards are so potentially great, and cost of using humans in those environments is presumed to be even greater.

(At least one super-power seems interested in a moon-base, and Elon wants to die on Mars;)

  • Runaway self-replication seems to be a concern in all areas

This could be why there is some reticence (see gray goo—only needs to be "intelligent" at one thing;) but it would seem to be less of a concern at the macro-scale in a terrestrial setting at current level of AI. In this domain, it's almost certainly a question of cost vs. cost of human labor.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nanorobotics is a great topic and a really interesting branch of science and hi-tech, that's no doubt. But in the nearest future we need to handle basic needs first with simple proven reliable and already existing technology. Let's start with worldwide housing crisis (to remove homelessness at least at basic level) and food production (to remove hunger completely). And of course some stable industrial output with easy ability to scale quickly will be great. So I guess solar system wide production is achievable within 500 years. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 3:56
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The problem is accuracy degrades exponentially and no 3d printed part today can accurately fix the accuracy issue.

The other issue is, to make modern things requires a ridiculous amount of specialized industry.

What your proposing will only work if we can 3d print at a tiny, tiny scale. If you can reliably print semiconductors, then this will be viable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, basically semiconductors as chips are already printed via standard lithography process. As for accuracy - these items could be even casted with predefined forms, so it is not a big issue. Moreover, we don't need 100% accuracy as well. It's enough to ensure basic functions. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ In case of specialized industry - it looks like it all can be available using this scheme with just 2 simple items - printers and arms. All these items can be available with just servomotors, wires, chips and structural mechanical elements. So this is a kind of theoretical proof of concept of self-replicating machinery with the ability to scale production very easily in both terms of quantity and available functions. $\endgroup$
    – Paco Loco
    Nov 4, 2021 at 4:02

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