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Are TARS, CASE and KIPP precursors to von Neumann Probes?

Rahul Bhattacharya
27th November 2014

For those of us who have watched a lot of 1960s and 70s Hollywood films in the late 1980s on VCRs and college common rooms, it is difficult to forget the mysterious giant monoliths in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember a whole semester full discussions on this film during regular classes as well as outside the classes. What were these machines? What kind of computers or robots were they? I couldn't get the thought of these monoliths out of my mind.

It is now 2014 and in Chris Nolan's latest movie Interstellar we once again encounter computing machines of slightly different kind; these are highly sophisticated, friendly robots named TARS, CASE and KIPP, who along with the humans, go on an interstellar journey. These robots can perform a variety of tasks based on the voice command received from humans. Indeed, in the movie, TARS, eventually saves mankind by falling into the core of a black hole and retrieving quantum mechanical data from its singularity and then relaying them back to Cooper, the main protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey. And, it is TARS that in the end opens Cooper's eyes to the five-dimensional universe.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s John von Neumann, the renowned American mathematician who was one of the first inventors of an electronic computer while at Princeton during World War II, demonstrated that we can create robots that can self-replicate. These would be highly intelligent machines that can program themselves in such a way that they can both repair themselves and create carbon copies of themselves. In developing his theory about these self-replicating machines, von Neumann drew from two fields of science, biology and mathematical logic.

Even though von Neumann himself never considered the possibility of using these self-replicating machines to explore the universe, after his death in 1957, this idea caught on, especially amongst the science fiction writers. Scientifically speaking, physicists and engineers theorized that these von Neumann probes could self-replicate by using the raw materials found in any star system. But these robots íV these self-replicating machines íV are much more advanced than TARS, CASE or KIPP that we see in the movie Interstellar. These probes will not need any instructions from humans on Earth while exploring millions of star system on their own. Every now and then they will pause to radio back their findings.

In their 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, physicists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler have theorized that over billions of years of evolution intelligent beings will colonize the farthest reaches of the universe by sending out millions of von Neumann probes at speeds close to that of speed of light. These millions of von Neumann probes scattered all across the galaxies and creating millions of copies of themselves will be analyzing chemicals on each planet and star system to find systems that are suitable for sustenance of intelligent life.

The robots in Interstellar are not von Neumann probes, even though they come close. But in as far as probing the universe on celluloid is concerned Nolan has certainly gone farther than any other director in the history of Hollywood.


  1. Barrow, John D. and Tipler, Frank J., The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press, 1986.

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