Age of Robots Preview: Ending Aging, with Aubrey de Grey

If you missed my Seeking Delphi™ podcast episode #19 with Aubrey de Grey–or found Aubrey’s accent difficult to follow–here is a preview version of the cover story of the January Age of Robots magazine featuring the very same interview.  You can get the full article–and issue–at https://www.neurorobot

ENDING AGING

Ending Aging

ENDING AGING

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUBREY DE GREY

BY MARK SACKLER

Looking at Aubrey de Grey for the first time, his long bushy brown whiskers and sage countenance might remind you of Methuselah. How appropriate. That look is probably intentional. Though he originally trained in artificial intelligence, he has emerged as one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of human biological rejuvenation.

In fact, he founded the Methuselah Foundation in 2004 to endow human aging and rejuvenation research. He followed that up by authoring Ending Aging, The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Aging in Our Lifetime in 2008, and co-founding the SENS Foundation a year later. SENS, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, is a non-profit organization that researches the science of aging and possible means to reverse it. He serves as its chief science officer.

In Ending Aging, de Grey cited 7 types of intra- and extra-cellular damage that accumulate in the human body as it ages. Nine years later, he still sees those same 7 as the critical issues in understanding—and eventually reversing—human aging. But two significant things have changed in the ten years since he published that volume.

First, research into human biological rejuvenation has moved into the mainstream of research from the fringes. Any number of for-profit biotech ventures have started up, a longevity venture fund has received backing from some of the top names in Silicon Valley, and even some clinical trials are on the cusp of launching. The SENS Foundation itself has received backing from the likes of Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil.

Second, the emergence of breakthrough genetic editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, have pointed the way to accelerated progress in developing age-reversing genetic therapy. At least two individuals have tested genetic therapies on themselves within the past two years, both with initially promising results.

I spoke with de Grey recently in an interview for my Seeking Delphi™ podcast, regarding progress since the 2008 book, and the current state of the anti-aging art.

Mark Sackler: You wrote the book Ending Aging in 2008. You identified seven areas of cellular and intracellular damage that you think need to be reversed as the best process for reversing aging. In the nine years since you wrote that book, what has changed? Are we where you thought we’d be by now? Have there been any breakthroughs?

Aubrey de Grey: People often ask me, “When are you going to write a new book—when are you going to update Ending Aging?” It’s not a priority right now. It could easily be presumed to be saying that it’s not my priority simply because I haven’t made much progress and there’s not much to say. But it’s just the opposite of that—there’s been massive progress, but it’s been pretty much exactly the progress that we were predicting in the book. So essentially the plan is the same 7 points. There’s no problem number 8 or 9 that came along and had to be added.

“There have been some surprises, but they have all been good surprises in the form of innovative technologies­—new discoveries that have allowed us to pursue the same approaches but more effectively and more rapidly than we otherwise thought.”

And furthermore, the solutions that we discussed in the book are still the same solutions. There’s nothing that has come along that has made us have to revisit it and say, well, OK, the approach that we thought was going to be the right way to go is actually much harder than we had expected and therefore we need something else­­—none of that has happened. There have been some surprises, but they have all been good surprises in the form of innovative technologies­—new discoveries that have allowed us to pursue the same approaches but more effectively and more rapidly than we otherwise thought. Now there is one downside, though, which I also want to deal with here. Which is, back then—in fact a couple of years before I wrote that book in 2004—I started making predictions about the time frames of how long this will all take. And of course, I was always making a lot of caveats emphasizing that a prediction of time frames was very speculative for any pioneer in technology. However, the fact is we haven’t hit the time frames I was saying that we would.
I said there was a 50–50 probability of reaching a milestone that I specified and that I named robust mouse rejuvenation within 10 years—from that point of around 2004. And so that’s what’s gone wrong. But what’s gone wrong is not the science, but something else. The answer is the money. The fact is that my predictions were always very strongly conditional on the ability to bring in funding that was sufficient so that the rate of progress would only be limited by the sheer difficulty of the technology, the actual science and practice. I believe we’ve been going along three times more slowly than that initial prediction simply because it’s been so much more difficult than I had expected to attract sufficient funding.

Mark Sackler: You mentioned robust mouse rejuvenation as one of the key milestones along the road to reversing human aging. I’ve read some stories lately that some scientists have claimed to slow or create some minor rejuvenation in mice. Obviously, it’s not what you define as robust. So how do you define it?

Aubrey de Grey: I have defined robust mouse rejuvenation to be taking mice that are already in middle age, before anything has been done to them, and doubling or trebling their remaining time. What that means is you take normal adult mice, with no preexisting problem or had any prior therapy applied to them­­—you want those mice when they’re already two years old and you have done nothing to pharmacological and nothing genetic to them—that would typically live an average of three years (that’s on the long side for mice). And then you throw a whole bunch of interventions at them to turn their last year into three. That’s the definition that I gave to robust mass rejuvenation. Now the things that have been happening recently have been exciting but they’re definitely not doing robust mass rejuvenation at the moment. We still can’t extend the lifespan of mice by more than a couple of months by interventions that are initiated at two years of age.

Mark Sackler: There’s a second critical milestone you cite, that’s LEV, or longevity escape velocity. So obviously we’re nowhere near that. But what is it, and how far away are we from getting there?

Aubrey de Grey: First, let me summarize the definition —it all arises from the fact that progress buys time when you are doing rejuvenation. In other words let’s talk about humans: If we were to take someone who was 60 years old, let’s suppose, and at some point in the future we were at the stage of rejuvenation technology whereby we could buy people 30 additional years of life—so that we would take them and throw a whole bunch of therapy at them that would rejuvenate them reasonably well so that they would become biologically sexy again until they were chronologically 90—if we could do that, then the reason why they would become biologically 60 again at all is because the therapies are imperfect. There will be a huge number of different types of damage that happen that fall into the 7 categories; some of them are just more difficult to manage than others.

So, we end up mending the easy stuff. And we can do that as often as we like. But eventually the initial therapies don’t work, and damage will accumulate to the point where damage is again the same as at 60 years. But because you have those 30 years way before you got to be biologically 60 for the second time, you’ve had time to improve the therapies.

“The definition of longevity escape velocity is simply the minimum rate which we need to improve the comprehensiveness of the therapies to stay one step ahead of the problem.”

And improving means improving the comprehensiveness. It means getting to a point where you can fix some of the difficult damage. Maybe you’ll never be able to effect repair on 100% of the damage, but you’ll be able to fix some of it, which means you will be able to rejuvenate the same people with what we might call SENS 2.0. Perhaps by the time this rejuvenation decays to be biologically 60 a third time, they’ll actually be 150. And so on. The definition of longevity escape velocity is simply the minimum rate which we need to improve the comprehensiveness of the therapies to stay one step ahead of the problem. And longevity escape velocity turns out to be a trivial thing to maintain. The rate of progress that we’re talking about here is minute as compared to the rate of progress that we always see in other technologies historically after the initial breakthrough that solves the fundamental problem. So, the uncertainty of time frames consists entirely of the question of how soon we will reach SENS 1.0. Soon will we do that, and originally my time frame over the past 13 years since I started talking about it has come down only by about 5 years, which is sad, but the reason again is entirely because of a lack of funding.

Mark Sackler: What about using pharmaceuticals or supplements to slow the aging process—to buy more time before we reach SENS 1.0? There are several agents out there now. Metformin is about to go into human clinical trials, Rapamycin is in trials with dogs, and NAD+ supplements are all the rage right now. What’s your take on all of this?

Aubrey de Grey: So I’m all for this work. I think that it’s very valuable in helping people to stay healthy longer. However, there is a very important feature of all of these supplements which is very often swept under the carpet by the researchers and companies that are working on them. They’re all hypothesized to work by calorie restriction memetics. In other words, drugs that trick the body into thinking it’s not getting as many calories as it would like, even though it is getting them. The reason such drugs are so interesting is because 80 years ago it was established that if you feed, say, a mouse or a rat less than it would, like then, it will live longer than it would otherwise live.

And that’s a really important result. And by the 1970s it had become the single most studied phenomenon in the whole of gerontology—and it continues to be. But not eating as much as you would like is not fun. So, if one could develop the drugs that mimic this effect, then you’ve got the best of both worlds: you’ve got the longevity extension and you also don’t have the hunger. So that’s wonderful. Except that there’s a huge catch, and it has been a totally incontrovertible message in the animal data for decades. It is a fairly scandalous thing that has been swept under the carpet.

The problem is that different species respond by different degrees to this kind of restriction. Specifically, long-lived species respond less than a short-lived species. The world record for how much you can extend the life of a nematode worm that normally lives about three weeks is by a factor of five. But then if you go up and look at organisms that live a couple of years, like mice, you can only get a factor of one and a half. That’s still very impressive but it’s definitely not five. But unfortunately, this trend persists as you go higher up the chain.

For example, about 20 years ago you’re in a very thorough and rigorous trial made with Labrador dogs, which normally live about 11 years, and on the whole, it resulted in only about a 10% increase in lifespan. And over the past 20 odd years, two groups in the US have performed extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming experiments of calorie restriction on monkeys, and depending on how you interpret that, it yielded maybe a couple of percent increase. So, the prognosis for humans is not terribly good.

Now again I want to emphasize I’m fine with the fact that people are excited by these drugs, because they do seem to keep people healthy; they are protective, but it is critical not to make the extrapolation that they are the foundation to extending life—because in no way has that happened. We want to pay proper attention and give proper priority to the stuff that will really works.

Mark Sackler: One of the hottest biotech topics lately has been genetic editing, and there have been at least two individuals who recently had genetic editing therapy performed on themselves. They are Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of Bioviva, and Brian Hanley, who has his own one-man biotech operation. I wonder what you make of those two efforts.

But there are things that CRISPR can’t do—specifically it can’t insert new genes into the genome, and we actually have a very important project that is designed to get around that limitation.”

Aubrey de Grey: Well, first let me talk about gene targeting in general. CRISPR is a fantastic breakthrough. When I was talking at the beginning about the surprises that we’d had, that’s probably the single biggest one—because the fact is that before it came along, there was very little that we could do to change genes. We had methods for gene targeting, for modifying the genome, but they were very laborious and expensive, and it didn’t seem they were going to become any less so. So CRISPR was a huge revelation. But there are things that CRISPR can’t do—specifically it can’t insert new genes into the genome, and we actually have a very important project that is designed to get around that limitation. But yes, basically we can do genetic editing with CRISPR more easily and cheaply and it is getting better all the time—getting more high fidelity and so on.

Now as for self-experimentation—what Liz and Brian have done—one can look at it in a whole bunch of ways. First, one can be curmudgeonly about it and say, well okay, this is very unsafe. God knows what’s going to happen if bad things happen if these people die as a result of that therapy; it is going to set back the whole field to a large degree.

That’s all true up to a point. But at the same time, we have to remember that self-experimentation is not new. It has a long and very distinguished history in biology. JBS Haldane, the distinguished and respected British biologist from the 1930s, was rather famous for doing things to himself that I certainly wouldn’t dare to. So we have to acknowledge that it’s double edged. Certainly, the scientific information that will come from this sort of experimentation effort is probably very limited, simply by the fact that it is a sample size of 1. But on the other hand, the high-profile news that arises and the fact that people are talking about what is happening and a discussion is actually occurring, has its own value. If people are not interested in something, it’s very hard to get them to think about it, whereas if they are interested, even for an unusual and rather tangential reason, you can educate them. In a sense, people like Liz and Brian are helping me.

Mark Sackler: Earlier this year I interviewed David Wood of the London Futurists on his book The Abolition of Aging. You may be familiar with it, since he did mention you more than once in the book. In it he forecast that by 2040 there is a 50–50 chance of there being widely available affordable rejuvenation therapy. How do you feel about that forecast right now? Is it overly optimistic? Is it well within reach if there’s enough money, or is it totally uncertain?

Aubrey de Grey: It’s pretty much exactly the same as my prediction. That may not be a coincidence.


Aubrey de Grey Biography
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK and Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to combatting the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. He received his BA and PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1985 and 2000 respectively. His original field was computer science, and he did research in the private sector for six years in the area of software verification before switching to biogerontology in the mid-1990s.

His research interests encompass the characterisation of all the accumulating and eventually pathogenic molecular and cellular side-effects of metabolism (“damage”) that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and/or obviate that damage. He has developed a possibly comprehensive plan for such repair, termed Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), which breaks aging down into seven major classes of damage and identifies detailed approaches to addressing each one. A key aspect of SENS is that it can potentially extend healthy lifespan without limit, even though these repair processes will probably never be perfect, as the repair only needs to approach perfection rapidly enough to keep the overall level of damage below pathogenic levels. Dr. de Grey has termed this required rate of improvement of repair therapies “longevity escape velocity”. Dr. de Grey is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organisations.


Postscript
This has been an excerpt from Ending Aging in the January-February 2018 issue of Age of Robots. In the next issue of Age of Robots, part two of this article will feature an interview with the first person ever to have genetic age reversal therapy procedures tested on herself, Bioviva CEO Elizabeth Parrish.

The complete audio podcast of my interview with Aubrey de Grey is available at https://seekingdelphi.com/2017/12/13/podcast-19-ending-aging-with-aubrey-de-grey/ and on iTunes and PlayerFM.

AGE OF ROBOTS: First Look

We’re fascinated with robots because they are reflections of ourselves.–Ken Goldberg

My first publication as a futurist has appeared in the inaugural issue of Age of Robots. It’s based on my interview with Will Mitchell in Seeking Delphi™ podcast #14 and is reproduced below.

 

 
Volume 1 Issue 1

 

Science Fiction VS Science Fact
Replicating Machines
by Mark Sackler

Science Fiction vs. Science Fact: Replicating Machines

By Mark Sackler

 

 

Self-replicating machines have been a staple in science fiction since the 1940’s.  A. E. Van Vogt, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, along with many others, have used self-building robots as plot devices.    But just how realistic an idea are they?

As far back as 1980. NASA conducted an engineering study of concepts for a self-replicating lunar factory.  For decades, the study sat and collected dust.  But the concept of robotic explorers, builders, and miners that can land and copy themselves, has come back to the fore.  Just how viable is this technology? How far away is it? Are there dangers?  Two men who have thought long and hard about this are science fiction author Will Mitchell and space roboticist Dr. Alex Ellery.

 

FICTION: William Mitchell, Author, Creations

 

Will Mitchell is an aerospace engineer who writes hard science fiction.  The key word is “hard.”  It signifies technical plausibility.  And in his 2013 novel Creations, he constructs a chillingly plausible scenario of technology gone wrong.  Step by step, he covers the building, deploying, evolution, and finally, destruction, of self-replicating robots on the moon.  Surprisingly, though, he is bullish on the use of self-replicating machines for space exploitation and colonization.

MS: What was the inspiration for Creations?

WM:  The idea came to me a long, long time ago.  I was reading the novel 2010 by Arthur C. Clarke.  I was in my early teens at the time.  At one point in the novel, the black monolith around Jupiter is compared to a self-replicating von Nuemann machine.  At that point, I’d never even heard of the idea, or considered it as a possibility.  This got me wondering: could you actually build a machine that could copy itself?  What would you get if you set it running, say, on the moon.  What if you had a vast automated city, populated only by robots, growing and spreading and possibly even evolving.

MS: Just how plausible is this concept?

WM: If you look at this issue, wrongly, you can conclude, wrongly, that it’s not possible at all. The first fallacy we should get past is the notion that a robotic machine can only make something simpler than itself.  It’s a very easy fallacy to fall into.  If you think of a production line making cars, no matter how many cars you pump out, there’s no way those cars could team together and build another production line. But working back in the 1940’s, John von Neumann, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, came up with his theory of automata.    He looked at the whole thing from a mathematical perspective.  He did this, first of all, to confirm that the idea of replicating machines was even possible, but secondly to try to figure out what capabilities and functions it would need in order to duplicate itself.  He was able to prove, mathematically, that machine replication is possible.

 

MS:  In the book, your draw deep similarities between biological life and machine life.  What can you say about that?

WM:  One of the things that confirmed this possibility to von Nuemann is this deep similarity between machine life and biological life.   He realized that all life forms, everything from bacteria upwards, they really are a kind of machine, albeit working by chemistry rather than robotics.  So that parallel between machine life and biological life is central to the whole thing.  This is because another major fallacy that you need to get out of the way is the idea that only biological systems can duplicate themselves.  It’s easy to fall into the trap that biological matter has a kind of life force associated with it, as if replication or self-duplication is some kind of mystical process.  But really, it isn’t, it just follows the laws of physics.

MS: How does this comparison work?

Creations on Amazon

WM: If you imagine something simple, like a bacterium reproducing, it takes in raw materials from its local environment and performs various functions on those raw materials. It reorganizes them and recombines them according to plans coded in its DNA.  What you get is a copy of the original, including its own DNA blue print which allows it to make more copies. When von Nuemann tried to figure out the basic plan for a replicating machine, he realized the exact same kind of function would be needed.  You’d need a machine that could take in raw materials, process them and arrange them, using some kind of fabricator. The whole thing would be run by an instruction set recorded on whatever type of storage medium you chose. Von Neumann proved mathematically, that something built like that is not only capable of reproducing, but it’s directly analogous to how biological systems reproduce.  It doesn’t matter if it is made of organic matter or metal and plastic, or if it uses DNA or data files, as long as it has the functions and components he identified as being necessary.

MS:  Why would we even need these in the first place?

WM:  The potential use of this technology is in space exploration.  This is where it really will come into its own.  We live in a very deep gravity well, and pushing things up that well is very, very expensive.  That first hundred miles up are phenomenally difficult and expensive to cross.  Once you’re up there, it’s easier.  Landing on the moon and taking off again takes a fraction of the fuel it took to get there from earth.  The same is true of Mars and its especially true of the asteroids. But they are all very hazardous locations, so ideally you would want to automate any industrial capacity as much as possible.  If you want to establish a wider more permanent presence in space without having to ferry every bit of equipment and fuel from earth, you need to develop something self-sustaining.  Something that does not need hardware or material to be supplied from earth. A year or so ago, the White House office of science and technology policy started looking for ideas to perform what they called, massless space exploration.  The aim is to find the smallest amount of hardware that can be launched into space and then unpack itself to form a self-sustaining mining and manufacturing infrastructure.

MS: What is the biggest technical hurdle yet to be overcome?

WM: The biggest issue is called closure.  If you make a list of all the parts a machine is made of, and a second list of everything it can make, everything on that first list must be on the second list.  Closure is expressed as a percentage.  100% closure means it can replicate itself. Even 99.999% is not good enough. If there is even one component the thing depends on that it’s unable to make, that’s enough to stop the whole thing.  A good example is high grade integrated circuits—processor chips. You need complex clean room facilities to make those.  If that type of capacity is included in the replicator design, it must be able to make that chip factory as well.  You don’t want to have to supply parts from earth, you want to get to as close to 100% closure as possible.

MS: In the book, things spiral out of control because the machines are allowed to evolve on their own. How does that happen?

WM: In my day job, I’ve used simulated evolution and that’s the career path I’ve given my main character in Creations. He’s the one who appreciates how powerful evolution can be as a design tool, and he’s the one who warns everyone else that what they are not letting loose might not be easy to control. Eventually he’s proven right.  The problems arise when the machines that are best at reproducing and surviving take over, not necessarily the ones that are most useful to us.

MS: Yet you are very much in favor of this technology.  Do you believe it can be controlled?

WM: The original NASA study considered the possibility of allowing the replicators to evolve.  There are some very exciting possibilities from that, because you would get something which is like a form of artificial life which could modify itself and spread much quicker than you could design.  But there are also some scary implications to that as well, because if you think you are going to keep full control of these things, you’re probably going to be mistaken. But if NASA did something like this, they would design it to remain under the control of the people who set it running.   However, Creations is fiction, and in fiction you need jeopardy, or in this case outright carnage, so for plot purposes some things need to go wrong.   In the novel, therefore, the machines designers are grossly negligent in how they oversee them.  In reality, though, I’m looking forward to seeing these kinds of replicating machines built, as I feel they will fulfill all the promises people make about them.  If it’s done responsibly, I’m an optimist rather than a pessimist.

MS: Creations is set in the year 2040.  How do you feel about current progress in this direction vis-à-vis that timeline, including the possible deployment on the moon?

WM: Things have come a long way since the NASA study.  They thought in terms of traditional manufacturing methods and not 3D printing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, seems like a very viable way of obtaining closure.  I think there are still some big hurdles to cross.  I think it’s going to be a long time before someone unpacks some robotic seed on the moon and lets it reproduce.  What the researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa are doing is a step in the right direction.  They are going beyond just the fast prototyping to 3D print an entire electric motor using multiple materials.  If they can do that and show that it works, it’s a big step forward.  The fundamental research is definitely going in the right direction and going faster than I anticipated.  But for the end state it’s possible that I was being optimistic with the 2040 year, but who knows, it may come along and surprise me.

 

FACT:  Alex Ellery, Ph.D,  Associate Professor, Space Robotics and Space Technology, Carleton University, Ottowa,

Alex Ellery

Ontario, Canada

At first glance, the electric motor in the lab of Dr. Alex Ellery looks like something that might have been built as a middle school science project.  But in fact, it is the first step toward the ultimate creation of a 3D printer that can replicate itself from materials found on the surface of the moon.  Dr. Ellery believes his team may be just a few months away from being able to 3D-print an entire electric motor at a single pass—no other assembly required.  And a fully self-replicating machine may closer to reality than Will Mitchell thinks.

MS:  Alex, how did you get started in this?

AE:  I’ve been aware of self-replicating machines since I was a student. I came across the concept of von Neumann machines when I was studying for a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Sussex.  I became fascinated with idea of self-replicating machines that could populate the galaxy.  As a result, I decided to do my Ph.D. in engineering.  Up until recently, there was never an opportunity to convert my imagination and fantasy of a self-replicating machine into anything practical.

MS: What was it that change recently?  What are you doing now?

AE: The most important event was the advent of the RepRap 3D printer, made by Adrian Bowyer at Bath University.  It can print some of its own plastic components, but that’s all it can do, so it is only partially self-replicating.  I started thinking that if you want to complete the process, the key components are the motors and electronics.  So, to completely be able to do this we need to focus on printing the motors and electronics as well.  We are currently building a printer where we can print metal and plastic and mill within the same platform.  Also at this time I was working on the Lunar Resource Prospector mission, which is an American mission to send a robot to the moon to drill for water and other resources and to cook it and extract oxygen from it.  From this I came up with a restricted material set—iron, nickel, cobalt, tungsten, volatiles, etc.—available on the moon, from which we could construct a machine that can   manufacture silicone, oils, and plastics.  With all those components, we have enough materials to build motors, electronics and structures.

MS:  What about closure—and specifically the fabrication of electronics?

AE:  One of the key elements in closure is restricting the elements that you need to access.  You have a restricted materials list that you use for everything.  It’s how I imagine the native Americans used to use Buffalo.  They use it for clothing and ropes and eat it as well, they lived within the restrictions of their environment and didn’t waste anything.  We use the same principle.  We have a restricted materials list. It may not give you optimal results, but it will certainly work.  With the electronics, as Will Mitchell pointed out, you can’t build solid state electronics on the moon.  But we do have the materials to build vacuum tubes.  We can use tungsten, cobalt, we have glass from silica. So instead of solid-state transistors we can use vacuum tubes.

MS: How would the electronics work with these vacuum tubes?

AE: Well the problem with using vacuum tubes to compute is that the device grows extremely large as you add capacity.  Early pre-transistor vacuum tube computers were the size of a small house.  To obviate against that I’ve come up with a different computational architecture which isn’t based around a CPU.  The CPU uses a Turing machine model.  You have the program going in, it churns through its calculations, and out comes the answer.  Instead, we implement each program we need as a neural network which we print on demand.  In this manner, you can have relatively complex programs in a comparatively small circuit.  The 3D printer becomes a Turing machine substitute.  So, a store of instructions comes in—you might store it perhaps in a magnetic core memory—that goes into the 3D printer which stamps out the neural circuit.

MS:  So how far along is this?

partially 3D-printed motor
Image Credit: Alex Ellery

AE:  I haven’t demonstrated that we can print the vacuum tubes yet, so we are concentrating on the motor first.  The biggest problem so far has been 3D printing the magnets.  If we can do that and get that done in the next few weeks, and demonstrate the coil design in multiple layers and don’t get any showstoppers I reckon we can get the first fully 3D printed motor working within a few months. I would like to say that if there are no showstoppers we could have it done by the end of the year.

MS:  What about full closure, thoroughly replicating and self-assembling?

AE:  Well once we have the motor we are not stopping there. We’ll use genetic algorithms to design new concepts to reduce the assembly requirements.  We’re building our own 3D printer. Eventually we’ll replace the off-the-shelf motors with our own motors.  Eventually we’ll replace our computer programs to control it with neural networks.  We’ll use the restricted materials list to make both the motors and the vacuum tubes.

MS: In Will Mitchell’s novel, Creations, the self-replicating machines are allowed to evolve on their own.  Is this something you have thought about?

AE: Yes, it is.  I wouldn’t allow them to evolve.  What I envisage for the lunar scenario is something called the salt contingency.  Salt (NaCl) will be required to produce each new generation of replication.  The sodium is needed because you need sodium carbonate for the processors and hydrogen chloride for the plastics.  If you deny these materials the replication process stops.  Both sodium and chlorine are very rare on the moon, so you need to supply that.  The second part of the process is to include EDAC—error detection and correction—in the program code which stops it from evolving. It will increase the size of the memory required by about 30 percent, but by building these codes in it provides an extra layer of protection.

MS: So, salt is the one feedstock that would have to be provided from Earth.  I suppose if you wanted to do this on an asteroid or on Mars, a different approach might be required?

AE:  Yes, on Mars, in particular, there’s plenty of salt so that safeguard wouldn’t work. You’d have to implement something else.

MS: Creations is set in the year 2040. It envisions a colony of fully self-replicating robots mining the moon in that year.  Is that over-optimistic? How far away is the complete self-replication of robots using materials, in situ, on the moon?

AE: Most of the work I’m doing is being done on a shoe-string budget.  If I was given proper money I could probably get something working much more quickly.  I did some estimates on how quickly you might be able to do this.  I think we could have a fully self-replicating machine within 12-years if we had the funding required to really make it happen.  It could be done a lot sooner than you think.

A reminder that the Seeking Delphi™ podcast is available on iTunesPlayerFM, blubrry and , and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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