for National Geographic News
Scientists have created a robot that can replicate itself in minutes. The team behind the machine says the experiment shows that self- reproduction is not unique to living organisms
The researchers add that the ability could be harnessed to drive major advances in nanotechnology, the science of the very small, and may even lead to space colonization by robots.
Developed by researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the machine was constructed from cube-shaped robotic units (modules) that functioned independently. A four-module robot could assemble an exact replica of itself in just two and a half minutes.
Writing for tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature, the researchers say the plastic robotic cubes each contained a microprocessor, a motor, and electromagnets. The cubes were split diagonally into two halves, allowing the cubes to swivel to change position or move objects.
Each cube was preprogrammed with building instructions, says Hod Lipson, an assistant professor at Cornell's department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and department of computing and information science.
"The cubes are aware of contact and release events [with other cubes] and of the order in which they were assembled," he said.
Lipson says the robot can do little but self-reproduce. But he notes that it would be fairly easy to add modules with grippers, cameras, or other specialized equipment.
The researcher adds that, while the robot is a relatively simple device, it strengthens the case of scientists who believe self-reproduction isn't unique to living organisms and that in the future machines will be able to clone themselves.
If so, the implications for some fields, including nanotechnology and space exploration, could be huge.
"Consider a robotic mission to a remote planet," Lipson said. "If a traditional robot is sent and it breaks, the mission is over. But if modular robots are sent over with a supply of materials, and a fault happens, they may be able to self-repair."
The researcher suggests such robots could adapt to solve problems.
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