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Birds Do It, Bees Do It… Now Robots Do, Too

For years, scientists have dreamt of making robots that can self-reproduce. Someday, such a machine could be sent to explore a distant planet, where it could clone itself. Now, researchers say they've come up with primitive robots that can self-replicate.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, Hod Lipson from Cornell University describes robots in his lab with a limited ability to self-reproduce. The machines aren't the humanoid contraptions many people conjure when they think of robots -- Lipson's robots consist of a stack of three white plastic cubes that stand as a simple tower.

Each cube has an electronic brain that holds a blueprint for building new towers. If you feed one of these robot towers new cubes, it will make a copy of itself in just a couple of minutes.

Lipson says his robot is still way too dependent on humans to take any kind of interplanetary journey. "They're dependent very much on having cubes supplied in a very particular place and particular time," Lipson says. "They have a lot of constraints."

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Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.