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A concept created by John von Neumann. One would design a probe to travel through space and explore other star systems, and possibly galaxies. It would be designed to include a von Neumann machine. (Of the self-replicating kind, not the old style computer kind)

As the probe headed into space, as it stubled across asteroids or barren planets which had the raw materials necessary, the probe would perform the von Neumann machine part of its functionality, and replicate some number of times. Then either all or most of the probes could head back out into space, with a larger number.

This process could enable higher-speed exploration of space, as it would not require people to travel. The replication would continue to increase the number of probes available, and thus the amount of space that could be covered.

The probes could also be designed with additional functionality into them, if desire., This functionality could allow them to not just explore, but perhaps to construct objects on a massive scale, or to terraform planets in preparation for habitation.

An argument against other intelligent life in space is because of the Von Neumann Probe Theory.

Because of the problems and limitations of interstellar travel, the creation of self-replicating probes seems the obvious solution to exploration of the galaxy.

Since we have not seen any probes reach Earth, the theory states that is because there is no intelligent (or technology creating) life out there; otherwise we would have been visited by now.

A counter argument is that we are among the first intelligent species in the galaxy.

A counter-counter argument is that since we live on the outer rim of the galaxy, we should be among the last to develop (those nearer the galatic core are under higher amounts of radiation and should mutate at a higher rate).

Another important counter-arguement to the von Neumann probe theory is to ask ourselves: Why do we expect to be able to detect a von Neumann probe? It would seem that any civilization able to build one of these things would have developed "nanotechnology" which we would not be able to detect. Indeed, I once heard the argument that a mechanical alien visitor could possibly be watching us from a craft the size of a pinhead floating around in the asteriod belt.

Another example of a von Neumann probe is given in an episode of the X-Files. The plot centers around a discovery that a lot of cockroaches which seem to, actually, be mechanical visitors/scouts/spies from outer-space. It actually does a good job of getting the message across that not only do we not know what we are looking for, we also don't know where to look.

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