Ultimately, the question whether self-reproducing robots will evolve or not boils down to the capability of artificial intelligence systems to self-improve. Only then could the “brains” of the robotic factory build evolved robots without the need of human designers.
It’s already happening. Machine learning has been around for years. New algorithms for data analysis, combined with increasing computer power and interconnectedness, means that intelligent machines will be able to comprehend massive amounts of contextual information. They would not only be able to understand what a piece of information is about, but how it relates to other information. The capability to understand correlations and get “the big picture” could potentially enable them to set their own goals. Already there are autonomous robotic systems that do that, military drones being an example. Self-improvement could be next.
Perhaps by exploring and learning about human evolution, intelligent machines will come to the conclusion that sex is the best way for them to evolve.
Rather than self-replicating, like amoebas, they may opt to simulate sexual reproduction with two, or indeed innumerable, sexes.
Sex would defend them from computer viruses (just as biological sex may have evolved to defend organisms from parasitical attack), make them more robust and accelerate their evolution. Software engineers already use so-called “genetic algorithms” that mimic evolution.
Nanotechnologists, like Eric Drexler, see the future of intelligent machines at the level of molecules: tiny robots that evolve and – like in Lem’s novel – come together to form intelligent superorganisms. Perhaps the future of artificial intelligence will be both silicon- and carbon-based: digital brains directing complex molecular structures to copulate at the nanometre level and reproduce. Perhaps the cyborgs of the future may involve human participation in robot sexual reproduction, and the creation of new, hybrid species.
If that is the future, then we may have to reread Paley’s Natural Theology and take notice. Not in the way that creationists do, but as members of an open society that must face up to the possible ramifications of our technology. Unlike natural evolution, where high-level consciousness and intelligence evolved late as by-products of cerebral development in mammals, in robotic evolution intelligence will be the guiding force. Butler will be vindicated. Brains will come before bodies. Robotic evolution will be Intelligent Design par excellence.
The question is not whether it may happen or not, but whether we would want it to happen.