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Self-repairing robots do have a sense of self? – I

The Hydra is one of the most amazing animals we know of for its regeneration capabilities that edge on immortality. Image credit: Stefan Sieberg/UC Davis. Published on Interesting Engineering

I have been fascinated by hydras since I was at elementary schools and I kept tracking the increasing knowledge researchers have harvested on these animals. Their outstanding capability for regenerating missing limbs was well known to our ancestors that created the mythical Hydra, a creature with seven snake like heads that when one head was cut by a daring opponent would immediately grow two heads to replace the missing one.

Hydras are not anywhere like the seven head serpent-dragon of the myth, they are tiny animals (some species are a symbiotic algae-animal creature) 1 to 2 cm (less than one inch) that to eat have to open up their body and create a mouth, promptly having it disappearing once the food has been ingested. To expel the waste they use the same process of creating an opening by stretching their surface to the point it breaks open. You cut a tentacle … it is regenerated in a very short time, you cut the hydra in two, three, twelve fragments… you get 2, 3, 12 brand new hydras.

Researchers have recently been able to separate the cells of a hydra and have watch in marvel as these cells regrouped together to form back the hydra.

I remember wondering if the 2 hydras stemming out from the cut hydra would feel like children or like the original hydra. Of course I have no idea what it feels to be a hydra… but still. Is the regeneration when pushed this far result in a new individual or not?

All life has regeneration capabilities, we scratch our skin and after a week the skin has regrown (sometimes leaving a scar if the scratching was deep or got infected). However, if we lose a finger, a limb, it does not regrow, as it happens for lizards and other animals.

Differently from life form, our artefacts do not have the capability of self repairing. Well, at least not till recently. The first artefacts showing a capability of mending themselves, creating siblings and growing in capabilities (and size) are software artefacts. A first example are “quines“, software programs that can print their code (that of course could then be used as the original for a clone program…).

The whole area of evolutionary computing is dedicated to the study of self-replicating programs that can also evolve as they replicate themselves. More recently, researchers created self-replicating neural networks that learns in the process. Now, it might seem easy to replicate bits, since there is not issue with getting the raw materials, bits can be duplicated basically for free, but that is not the case. The replication process is quite complex and it also relates to the issue of identity, I mentioned when discussing the hydra. Is the replica aware that it is a replica? How do the different replicas (and original) interact with one another? This is an issue I was confronted many years ago as I started programming the first Italian electronic exchanges (SPC Software Program Control) where we had a single program and thousands of program instances, each one controlling a specific customer line… This is the issue being faced today when a company creates a Digital Twin which is actually self replicating into thousands of instances, each one attached to a specific product manufactured.

Today we have many examples of self-replicating software, unfortunately many of these are for malicious purposes, like computer viruses.

Nevertheless it is true that self-replication when hardware is involved presents additional challenges. I’ll look at that in the next post.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.