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Will a von Neumann probe be launched before 2050?
A von Neumann probe is an autonomous spacecraft capable of replicating itself. The concept is named after the 20th century Hungarian-American mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, who rigorously studied the concept of self-replicating machines that he called "Universal Assemblers." While von Neumann never applied his work to the idea of spacecraft, theoreticians since then have done so.
In theory, a self-replicating spacecraft could be sent to a neighbouring planetary system, where it would seek out raw materials (extracted from asteroids, moons, planets, gas giants, etc.) to create replicas of itself. These replicas would then be sent out to other planetary systems. The original parent probe could then pursue its primary purpose within the star system. This mission varies widely depending on the variant of self-replicating starship proposed.
If a self-replicating probe finds evidence of primitive life (or even a primitive intelligent culture, analogous to that achieved by humans in the past) it might be programmed to lie dormant, silently observe, attempt to make contact, or even interfere with or guide the evolution of life in some way.
It has been theorized that a self-replicating starship utilizing relatively conventional theoretical methods of interstellar travel (i.e., no exotic faster-than-light propulsion, and speeds limited to an "average cruising speed" of 0.1c.) could spread a technological presence throughout a galaxy the size of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years, which is close to nothing on cosmological timescales.
Will a self-replicating autonomous spacecraft be dispatched into space by humanity (or by technological intelligence created by humanity) before January 1 2050?
A spacecraft will count if it meets the criteria (per Wikipedia's definition of self-replicating machines) of being capable of reproducing itself autonomously using raw materials found in the environment, thus exhibiting self-replication in a way analogous to that found in nature.
For positive resolution, the spacecraft must launch into space, but is not required to undergo a replication cycle.
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