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.







The Future This Week: July 24, 2017

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”–Elon Musk

“I want to die on Mars; just not on impact.”

I see a major quandary going forward with this feature.  Elon Musk quotes may run out before Elon Musk stories run out.  And Elon Musk stories will run out, like, never.  Though this week, a couple of the stories could easily be categorized as anti-Musk.

HyperloopElon Musk says The Boring Company has received verbal government go ahead to tunnel from New York to Washington, DC.  The hyperloop that would run within it could make the run in 29 minutes, vs. the 3+ hours by Amtrak, and could begin construction in as little than 4-6 months, he asserts.

More than one observer thinks Musk is blowing smoke on the rapid startup envisioned for the NY-DC loop.  Government approval for large scale infrastructure projects don’t get done in months; they take years or even decades.

Artists conception of an underground Hyperloop station

Robotics–The L. A. Times reports that a critical shortage of migrant farm workers in California is being met by a move to robotic crop pickers.  It still has a way to go, but after years of crackdown on illegal immigration, there appears to be no other way to go.

Artificial Intelligence–China wants to be the world leader in A.I. by 2030, reports the N.Y. Times. They project a domestic industry worth $150 billion yearly.  That’s a lot of yuan.

It’s not just government project proposals that Elon Musk doesn’t understand.  According to Rodney Brooks, the founding director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Elon doesn’t know much about artificial intelligence, either.  Speaking in an interview with Tech Crunch, Brooks said that the one thing that Elon, and all of the other naysayers who warn of existential risks in A.I.,  have in common, is that none of them work in A.I.

Autonomous Vehicles–The Verge reports that buyers of autonomous vehicles could effectively face planned obsolescence as technical capabilities advance rapidly.  The last time I heard that phrase in regards to cars, it referred to the size and shape of tail fins, circa 1960.

1959 Chevy Impala tail fins. They got smaller in 1960 and again in 1961, and disappeared altogether in 1962. Planned obsolescence.


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.

The Future This Week, April 9, 2017:

“I want to die on Mars; just not on impact.”–Elon Musk


Mr. Musk

No. Really.  This is The Future This Week.  It only seems like Elon Musk This Week.  Indeed, there is at least one twitter account dedicated exclusively to Elon Musk news.   If forced to make a prediction, I’d say there will be enough material for a 24/7 Elon Musk cable news channel by next year.  When it comes to inventing the future, nobody tops Elon.   Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City, Neuralink, Hyperloop One (OK, that last one isn’t his company, but hyperloop is his idea).  You get the idea.   He’s all over the place;  with some of this stuff he might actually be successful.  Like Babe Ruth, he may set a home run record but strike out a lot in the process.


Tesla/SpaceX/Musk news–




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

Podcast #10: Lights! Action! Camera! The Future of Cinema and Digital Entertainment

“Movies are a fad. Audiences really want to see live actors on a stage.”–Charlie Chaplin

How wrong could Charlie Chaplin have been, over 100 years ago, when he made that statement?  He was in the nascent stages of a film career that would make him one of the most iconic figures in the history of cinematic arts.  Yet, even in the middle of a major communication revolution, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.   Today, technology changes that used to take decades, take barely a few months.  Can we be any better than Charlie Chaplin at foreseeing which of today’s new media technologies will be the long term winners?  For that matter, will anything last long enough to be considered “long term?”  In Episode #10 of Seeking Delphi, I talk to author and filmmaker Steven D. Katz.  He was writing about technologies like CGI and digital media for Millimeter Magazine before most others in the industry were even noticing them.  Steve acknowledges that the traditional large-screen movie house will have to continue to up its game to compete with home technologies and distribution options that keep on getting better.

Links to relevant stories appear after the audio file and embedded YouTube video below.  A reminder that Seeking Delphi is available on iTunes, and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

Film Directing Shot By Shot
by Steven D. Katz
One of the best-selling film making textbooks of all time.

Episode #10: The Future of Cinema and Digital Entertainment


(YouTube slide show)


Books by Steven D. Katz

Hyperloop One finished its test track, and narrowed down the candidates for the first two systems to be built in the U.S.

Boeing and Jet Blue have backed a venture aiming to deliver hybrid electric commuter jets by the early 2020s

The U.S Air Force is developing hyper-sonic attack drones for the 2040’s.

No, I didn’t make this up.  A Chinese engineer married his robot wife!

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The Future This Week, April 2, 2017: Robot Job Apocalypse?

“The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.”–Erich Fromm

You’re fired!

Today’s lead story brings to mind a classic gag from Woody Allen’s early stand-up comic days.  He told the story of how his father came home from work one day to report that he had been laid off from his factory job; he was replaced by a 50-dollar part on the assembly line.  The sad thing was, his mother immediately ran out and bought one of those parts.

The notion that a manufacturing plant  could be comprised of 3D printers run and maintained by robots is mind boggling.  So who maintains the maintenance robots?  Maintenance maintenance robots?  And who maintains the maintenance maintenance robots….?

3D Printing/Automation–

Yes, Voodoo manufacturing has created the world’s first robot-run 3D printing plant.   It allows the humans to concentrate on the creative work while the robots do the menial work, 24/7.  So what happens when A.I. starts doing the creative work?

Writing in the futures blog on Futurizon,  Ian Pearson, Ph.D., takes the position that A.I. will actually create jobs, not take them.  Dr. Pearson will be my guest on the Seeking Delphi podcast, the week of April 10.


Miranda. Maybe this is where all those lost socks went?

Space/NASA–NASA astronauts made a big booboo when they lost an important part of the International Space Station during a spacewalk earlier this week.   One of four pieces of cloth shielding designed to protect the station from impacts by small bits of orbiting  space junk, broke free and floated away.  The astronauts were able to make the other three pieces make do.  That’s a good thing.  For all we know, the interplanetary lost and found could be on Miranda.

Next Big Future reports that there is a push within the Chinese government to triple spending on space science over the next several years.  It’s still far less than NASA spends, though. Projections through the year 2030 are provided.

Digital Media–Business Insider issued a report, along with a free slide presentation, on the future of TV and the digital media that is rapidly replacing it.  Most notable is a forecast that fully 75% of all mobile data will be video by 2022.  My guest next week will be filmmaker and author Steven Katz  to discuss the future of  cinema and the digital video entertainment it is competing with.

Cargo drone or killer whale?

Aviation/Drones– An automated  amphibious cargo drones the size of a Boeing 777 could take to the skies by 2020.  Daily Mail reports that the California company building them is about 70% complete on the first test model.  The final production model will have a carrying capacity of 200,000 pounds.

Biotech/Anti-Aging–PureTech Health has licensed a possible anti-aging compound from NovartisMIT Technology Review reported that Boston-based startup company .  The drug, everolimus has been shown in clinical trials to increase effectiveness of flu vaccines in elderly patients, suggesting that it effectively makes immune systems younger.  The substance is related to rapamycin, which has previously been shown to increase average life span in mice by as much as 25%.

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

Podcast #9, Ethics and Emerging Technologies

All attempts to adapt our ethical code to our situation in the technological age have failed.–Max Born 

When thinking about the future of technology, many envision one extreme or the other.  Apocalyptic collapse, or Utopian delight.  There is a broad in between, however, filled with ethical as well as existential conundrums.  In this episode of Seeking Delphi, I talk with James J. Hughes, director of The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies about a wide range of issues.  These include not just the ethics of if, how, and when to proceed with certain technologies, but the ethics of public policy in dealing with the potentially disruptive social and economic changes they trigger.  The future is not black and white–in case you hadn’t noticed–but infinite shades of gray. It’s also clouded by the rise of the right and the Trump administration.

Links to relevant stories appear after the audio file and embedded YouTube video below.  A reminder that Seeking Delphi is available on iTunes, and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.



Episode #9: Ethics and Emerging Technology




(YouTube slideshow)


James Hughes bio

Harvard scientists to launch ambitious geoengineering experiment

World Future Society 2017  conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Oct 12-14 (details soon).

Elon Musk launches venture to link brains directly to computers

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The Future This Week, March 19, 2017

“There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.”–George Carlin

The moon, and space exploration in general, continued to make news this week.  It seems the moon is just howling for some company.  Here’s what’s been happening during the current lunar phase.

Space Exploration–


Additive Manufacturing/3D printing–

  • In an interview on the Seeking Delphi podcast, Dr. Paul Tinari made a variety of bold statements regarding the future of 3D printing for everything from food to cars, homes, battleships, and even human bodies.  (YouTube link available at the bottom of this post.)




  • Gene editing startup eGenisis raised $38 million dollars in venture capital funding for its process to use CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to grow pig organs for human implantation.  The company was co-founded by Harvard genetics guru, Dr. George Church and 30-year old Dr. Luhan Yang.


YouTube slide show: Podcast #7, 3D printing with guest Dr. Paul Tinari.  Also available on iTunes.

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