The first robot capable of building anything including a replica of itself, might cost a fortune to develop; the billionth copy would be as cheap as dirt. Send some of them into space and they could build new armies out of planetary rubble and dust, then go on to construct enough spaceships and refueling stations to carry the human race to other planets and, eventually, other stars.
That’s the scenario laid out some 35 years ago by a team of academics and NASA engineers meeting at the University of Santa Clara, in California. They envisioned robotic factories that would cover the moon and exploit the asteroid belt, extracting the resources needed to build more and better versions of themselves and also vast orbiting telescopes, space colonies, and other structures too big to launch from Earth. Over time, the researchers wrote, these bots could “produce an ever-widening habitat for man throughout the Solar System” and beyond it. The approach could become so successful, they warned, that we might have to worry about robotic population control.