- Rise of the Self-Replicators: Early Visions of Machines, AI and Robots That Can Reproduce and Evolve by Tim Taylor and Alan Dorin
The past two decades have seen a flurry of activity in the Artificial Life, or ALife, community, where data analysts, bio-engineers, and roboticists come together in their quest to apply biological principles to the construction of intelligent systems. Rise of the Self-Replicators is written by two members of the ALife community, data scientists Tim Taylor and Alan Dorin. The authors' ultimate career targets are futuristic: to explore whether it is possible to create a mechanism that can reproduce and evolve, and to examine the implications of such technological development. Their motive for writing this book, however, is to show that ideas about self-replicating machines are not novel, but have at least a 400-year history. Their goal is "to provide a chronological survey and a comprehensive archive" of all different contributors to the body of ideas about self-replicating machines, including philosophers, fiction writers, and scientists.
Surveying references to artificial entities capable of reproduction from the seventeenth century to the present, Taylor and Dorin identify three evolutionary stages. First, according to the authors, in the seventeenth century, people came to think of animals as machines, which lead to musings about machines that could reproduce. Then, in the nineteenth century, evolutionary theories inspired the idea that one day machines may be able not only to reproduce but also to evolve. Finally, in the 1940s and 50s, automation of the manufacturing sector created fertile ground for the emergence of an idea of, and some actual attempts to realize, what the authors call the "evo-maker-replicator"—an artificial entity able to reproduce while constantly introducing design improvements to its "offspring." In the final chapter of the book, Taylor and Dorin categorize the surveyed sources into identifiable tropes, hopes, and fears, as well as goals for exploring self-replicators—scientific, commercial, and sociological (p. 89). They then discuss what they consider to be either lacunae or productive directions in the writings of past thinkers. The book ends with a discussion of the potentials and pitfalls of evo-replicators, as well as their possible future technological uses, especially for "space exploitation and exploration" (p. 100).
The book is commendable for its comprehensiveness in surveying ideas about self-replicating machines in fiction, philosophy, and experimental science in Europe and the United States. Going beyond well-known figures, such as Descartes, Butler, Čapek, and von Neumann, the book also covers lesser-known yet no less fascinating individuals like Nils Aall Barricelli, who performed computer experiments on self-reproduction, or philosophically inclined Soviet mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov. In [End Page 1274] addition to describing historical sources and summarizing their ideas, the authors offer full-text, translated quotations, which makes the book an extremely useful reference source for studying artificial life philosophy that focuses on self-replication. Priced at almost $100, the book isn't readily accessible to resource-starved academics, let alone students. However, it is possible to request a free author-formatted PDF through the accompanying website (www.tim.taylor.com/selfrepbook).
Rise of the Self-Replicators is undoubtedly exciting and inspirational for its primary audience—fellow members of the ALife community—as well as for philosophers, science fiction enthusiasts, and futurists. Historians of technology, however, are left desiring more. The book does not engage with works written by historians of technology, and it does not pose questions historians of technology would have asked. The lessons it draws from history, too, differ significantly from the lessons historians of technology usually seek. A concise volume, the book covers 400 years of history in only seventy pages, which does not leave much space for discussion of the contexts in which ideas about self-replicators developed. Those who are already well-versed in history, science, and technology will likely be able to fill in many gaps. Students, however, should be encouraged to supplement this book with works that provide historical analysis...