The von Neumann Universal Constructor Prize

Update: There is now a wiki and an email list to discuss this proposal.
I'm looking for experts to sit on a prize comittee.

And then I'm looking for some person, group or institution to fund the prize.

What prize?

Let me start at the beginning, with a brief review of current technology.

Self Assembly

Robots used for assembly are a standard part of industry. Assembling the robots themselves, though, is a tricky task that has always required a measure of human intervention. Simpler robots, though, can be designed with automated assembly in mind, made up of small pieces that snap together, such as Lego Mindstorms.

Hod Lipson of Cornell University demonstrated practical self-assembly using towers of cubes attached to each other by magnets. Matt Moses at the University of New Mexico has taken this further, using Lego-like bricks to make a three-axis manipulator that can assemble a duplicate of itself, given the components. (As described in his thesis: A Physical Prototype of a Self-Replicating Universal Constructor)

Teams have competed to achieve a similar task with commercially available Lego.

Self Replication

The Replicating Rapid Prototyper Project has reached its first milestone of a machine able to manufacture most of the components needed to build a working copy of itself. Full self replication is the eventual aim, but partial self replication is also valuable, as it reduces the cost of such machines. Under the 90 % rule, the aim is to get the price of the purchased components below 10 % of the cost of a full commercial machine. Similarly, it is desirable to self manafacture at least 90 % of the parts, that make up 90 % of the mass and volume of the machine. As applied to assembly, the 90 % rule would dictate as a first stage that you would aim to cut down the amount of human intervention required by a factor of 10.

Universal Constructor

A von Neumann Universal Constructor both replicates the parts of the machine and assembles them into a working duplicate. No one has yet made a physical example of one that starts from raw materials, although there have been outline designs for a Self-Replicating Robotic Lunar Factory since 1980.

However one can envisage how such a system would be possible, if the work on self assembly and self replication could be brought together. And, as it happens, they are not too far apart. Lego pieces have been fabricated using rapid prototyping machines. And rapid prototyping machines have been constructed from Lego. Indeed people working on RepRap itself have made good use of Lego while bootstrapping to their current design.

The Prize

So what needs to be done to bring these two things together?

  1. Show that 90 % of a self assembling robotic system can be fabricated using a rapid prototyping system that can also self replicate
  2. Show that 90 % of the assembly from parts of a rapid prototyping system can be done by a robotic system that can also self assemble.

To this end, I propose that a prize be set up, to engage the imagination and spur progress. Said prize should be awarded in stages as well defined milestones on the path to this aim are reached, with a panel of experts judging when a submision has met the criteria. (Possibly on the model of the Ansari X Prize.)

I shall be soliciting feedback on this idea before making a more general publication of it. However, if you have come across this website and have ideas on prize criteria, feasibility of the aims, selection process for the panel or suggestions on funding, please contact me

Update : Feel free now to pass on the URL of this website (and the wiki and the email list) to others.