New Robots Can Replicate Themselves

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 28, 2005

Scientists have taken inspiration from nature to create robots that can replicate themselves.

Measuring about 15 inches (38 centimeters) long, the machines consist of five plastic blocks equipped with computer chips.

The robots are based on the principles of biological replication. Perhaps the most notable natural example of this is DNA, which copies itself from chemical building blocks that float around in cells.

Similarly, the new robots can reproduce using components randomly circulating on a surface similar to an air hockey table. Like DNA, the system also has a built-in ability to correct any errors made during copying.

"The analogy really is that of biology," said Joseph Jacobson, a study co-author and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Biology is exquisitely good at building highly complex, well-ordered structures from disordered parts."

The technology could potentially be used to build machines that break themselves into smaller units to go down pipes or narrow areas and then reassemble themselves.

The research is reported in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature.

DNA Replication

Self-replicating robots are nothing new. The research dates back to the 1960s when scientists outlined a scheme for the self-replication of a simple two-bit mechanical string, a crude device that put two wooden building blocks (A and B) into a slot.

But the new robots mark the first time a mechanical system has been created that can self-replicate from random parts using the same principles as biological systems, which assemble structures from disordered building blocks using error correction.

"We identified two ingredients about the biological process," Jacobson said. "One is that it can make these copies from random parts that are distributed throughout the environment, and second is that it can do so with very high fidelity [accuracy]."

DNA molecules provide the genetic blueprints for living organisms.

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