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Oh-So-Close to Self-Replication

Photo: Molecubes, via Wikipedia.

In my video “A Summary of the Evidence for Intelligent Design,” I claim that with all our advanced technology we are still not close to designing any type of self-replicating machine. Instead, that is still pure science fiction. When we add technology to such a machine, to bring it closer to the goal of reproduction, I said, we only move the goalposts, because now we have a more complicated machine to reproduce. So how could we imagine that such a machine could have arisen by pure chance? In “Why Evolution is Different,” I further invited viewers to imagine that we were somehow able to design, for example, self-replicating cars. The duplication errors that would inevitably arise as these cars reproduced themselves would surely result in rapid devolution, I claimed. Who could imagine that they could eventually accumulate into major advances in automobile evolution? 

A Very Difficult Question

In a post here (“The First ‘Simple’ Self-Replicator?”), I tried to explain why self-replicating machines are so far beyond current human technology, by imagining trying to design something as “simple” as a self-replicating cardboard box. Take an empty cardboard box, I said, and build a completely automated factory inside which can produce empty cardboard boxes. The factory would, I presume, at least need to have some metal parts to cut and fold the cardboard and a motor with a battery to power these parts. But since the box now only builds empty boxes, it is not a self-replicator. So we would need to add another factory that could automatically produce a box with an empty box-building factory inside, and that factory would be enormously more complicated. But this box is still not a self-replicator because the box it builds can only build empty boxes, so now we need to add more technology to build a factory that builds the empty box-building factory, and then…. All of this ignores, of course, the very difficult question of where the box gets the cardboard and metals and other raw materials needed to supply its factories.

A commenter at Stephen Meyer’s Facebook page said it was “not true” that we are not close to building a self-replicator, and pointed to this video of a device built at Cornell University that can produce copies of itself…as long as humans keep feeding it certain high-tech blocks. According to the Cornell news story:

One of the dreams of both science fiction writers and practical robot builders has been realized, at least on a simple level: Cornell University researchers have created a machine that can build copies of itself….. Their robots are made up of a series of modular cubes — called “molecubes” — each containing identical machinery and the complete computer program for replication. The cubes have electromagnets on their faces that allow them to selectively attach to and detach from one another, and a complete robot consists of several cubes linked together. 

Subject to Interpretation

So I stand corrected: although human engineers are still not able to design self-replicating machines, we are oh-so-close. All that is left is to add a factory to the Cornell device so it can produce for itself the molecubes that humans keep building and feeding them. Well, of course then we would have to add a factory that could produce this molecube-producing factory. And then…

The Cornell story goes on to argue that “self-replication” is a term subject to different interpretations, and that the Cornell device is at least a “proof-of-concept.” Well, although the definition in the Wikipedia article linked above says it must “use raw materials found in the environment,” maybe it is possible to water down the definition of self-replication to where this device could be said to be close to self-replication. But it certainly has no relevance whatever to how the first life formed…unless of course origin-of-life researchers find evidence that the early Earth was rich in high-tech blocks.