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Traveling the galaxy in a Von Neumann Machine

Speed read
  • TED Ed video explains the marvels of Von Neumann machines.
  • A few technological developments remain before we can build them.
  • Could such a machine have been the genesis of our own civilization?

Elon Musk’s optimism notwithstanding, it’s not going to be easy to move off this planet.

To boldly split infinitives. Intergalactic travel: Is this a hurdle too high for humanity? Not with a Von Neumann machine. Now we just need to learn how to build one. Courtesy TED Ed; Eoin Duffy.

Vast distances to cover and the means to cross them rapidly is no small hurdle to our endeavor to populate the galaxy.

And if we could get across the galaxy, and find a hospitable planet — then what? 

Surviving on Earth is difficult enough; how do we propose to live on planets with unknown environmental hazards?

John Von Neumann has a solution: Self-replicating machines.

Machines can endure the long travel times and the harsh conditions of outer space. Land a Von Neumann machine on a distant planet, then it can harvest the energy from existing materials on that planet, replicate itself, and move on. 

Like “a drop of ink in a fishbowl,” these self-replicating machines could be the means to spread our civilization throughout the galaxy in less than 4 million years. Sure, you and I will be long gone, but what’s four million years in comparison to the 14 billion years our universe has been around?

Ready to go?

Well, there’s still this one thing to figure out yet: Namely, how to build a Von Neumann machine.

But let’s not be discouraged. Rome wasn’t built in a day, goes the cliché, and neither will our interplanetary civilization. 

See more of Eoin Duffy's animation on Vimeo.

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