Von Neumann, John

Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata

  • First edition of this important work on self-reproduction in machines and life forms, scare in the dust jacket.

    Von Neumann became interested in the abilities of computers to self-reproduce during his work on the Institute for Advanced Studies computer project - noting that, since a Turing machine can make exact copies of any readable sequence, it can copy itself. He hoped to formulate a theory of self-reproduction that would be general enough to explain and predict self-reproduction in both machines and living things.

    “Using the same method of logical substitution by which a Turing machine can be instructed to interpret successively higher-level languages - or by which Gödel was able to encide mathematical statements within ordinary arithmetic - it was possible to design Turing machines whose coded instructions addressed physical components, not memory locations, and whose output could be translated into physical objects, not just zeros and ones. ‘Small variations of the foregoing scheme,’ von Neumann continued, ‘also permit us to construct automata which can reproduce themselves and, in addition, construct others’. Von Neumann compared the behaviour of such automata to what, in biology, characterises the ‘typical gene function, sefl-reproduction plus production - or stimulation of production - of certain specific enzymes. Viewing the logic of self-replication and self-reproduction through the lens of formal logic and and self-referential systems, von Neumann applied the results of Gödel and Turing to the foundations of biology” with his conjectures hitting “the heart of the probability or improbability of the origin of life” (Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral, pp. 283-285).

    Together with Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann attempted to develop these ideas for publication, but it remained unfinished at his death. “The incomplete manuscript, including a lengthy introduction based on a series of five lectures given by von Neumann at the UNiversity of Illinois in 1949, was eventually assembled, with careful editing by Arthur Burks, and published as Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata almost ten years after von neumann’s death... Our understanding of self-reproduction in biology, and our development of self-reproducing technology, proceeded almost exactly as the proposed theory described” (Dyson, p. 286).

  • Edited and Compiled by Arthur W. Banks. Urbana & London: University of Illinois Press, 1966.

    Octavo. Original green cloth, titles to spine and upper board in black. With the dust jacket. Contemporary ownership signature in blue ink to the front free endpaper. An excellent, fresh copy in the lightly rubbed jacket that is tanned, particularly along the spine panel, and has some nicks and short splits at the edges.

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