What is a von Neumann probe? (with photos)

The Von Neumann probe is named after the mathematician John von Neumann.

A von Neumann probe is a hypothetical space probe designed to self-replicate using raw materials found in any star system. The probe is named after John von Neumann, a mathematician who made many important contributions to science. One of his contributions was the first rigorous study of self-replicating machines. Although von Neumann himself never discussed the idea of ​​using self-replicating machines to explore space, shortly after his death in 1957 the concept began to make its way into science fiction and futurism.

It was theorized that a high-powered laser could be used to increase the speed at which a Von Neumann probe with solar sails could reach nearby stars.

Packed with advanced artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, a fleet of these probes could conceivably help colonize the entire galaxy or even the universe. They could carry human zygotes, or the information needed to create them, to populate newly discovered worlds without the hassle of human interstellar spaceflight. A von Neumann probe can even contain human emulations, aiding in decision making and data analysis.

Although the Von Neumann probes could use ion impulses to provide enough speed to escape the Solar System, such propulsion would create flight times for other star systems of thousands of years.

If the speed of a von Neumann probe and its ability to self-replicate is fast enough, the probes could allow the creation of a colonization wavefront of exponentially self-replicating probes, expanding outward at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. . The probes could be programmed to terraform planets on arrival, preparing worlds for future inhabitants.

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The best-known appearance of a von Neumann probe in fiction was in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which portrayed this probe as a black monolith. Since then, the concept has appeared in many science fiction novels and futuristic works.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that a von Neumann probe should be dispatched from Earth as quickly as possible, due to the enormous opportunity cost of delaying the colonization of space, a concept he calls “astronomical waste”. The galaxy’s resources could be used to sustain large numbers of people living happy and fulfilling lives, but now those resources are simply sitting idle, being wasted. Others believe that this point of view is idealistic and self-centered; and point to the dangers of self-replicating machines turning the universe into a veritable ‘astronomical rubbish’. A hypothetical alternative form of the probe, known as the berserker probe, could theoretically use the same technology to make life impossible on every world, sterilizing every world it touches – even wiping out existing life. This scenario can unfold through unforeseen probe malfunctions or through purposeful apocalyptic technology.

Whether the von Neumann probe is realized or not, the notion of self-replicating machines traveling through space paving the way for humanity remains a very real future possibility.

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