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What is the qualitative difference between the self-replication seen in crystal growth, versus the replication of offspring from a stored string/data/genotype? In the most abstract, mathematical descriptions of self-replication, we can assert that the various branches of a snowflake are "copies of themselves". But that seems to be lacking something; some je ne sais quoi, which we understand only intuitively. Can we quantify this intuitive notion? Progress on this question may involve deeper understanding of the relationship between form and function. What precisely is the difference between raw material to be eaten for the purposes of building up parts of a machine's body, versus the machine's body? In other words, how random does the "soup of raw materials" need to be for the machine to be said to be "constructing" itself to begin with? This question is asking for a quantitative answer to what the verb "to construct" actually means. The existence of self-replicators has two questions. Existence question 1. Can replicators only exist in our universe at the molecular level? Existence question 2. Molecular self-replicators exist. Look out your window to see a tree. That was easy to confirm. However, trees have no eyes, no central nervous system, and they do not copy themselves through the use of levers, arms, or grippers. Pushing the proverbial pendulum to the far extreme, we can imagine factories wherein the human engineers have been replaced by powerful artificial intelligence Androids, complete with hand-eye coordination, complex memories, and language. So we have a spectrum with two trivial answers standing at the poles. Molecular self-assembly, "Tree-like" replication on one end, and powerful androids working factories at the opposite end. Existence question 2 asks, are there any plausible replicators between these two extremums?
... There is a parallel research tract being done by biochemists to produce a nano-scale protocell using real DNA, PNA, or similar.