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Recursive Creators
aka: Von Neumann Machine

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Von Neumann probes, self-replicating machines, terraformers, Xenon, even the Enemy of God. But at its core, it was really only one thing; artificial general intelligence, mechanical minds capable of making themselves even more intelligent, and then again, and again, recursively forever.
— Opening narration, X3: Terran Conflict

Life makes life, as we all know. In other cases, life makes artificial life. This trope, however, continues that cycle as those artificial lifeforms make their own artificial lifeforms.


There's a variation where the artificial lifeform (usually a machine) is self-replicating, a... Self Replicating Machine, if you will. It's usually the domain of Nanobots everywhere, which is what makes them so dangerous.

And just when you thought Turned Against Their Masters was an exclusive Human/Robot trope, this may also lead to Robots Enslaving Robots.

May show Mechanical Evolution or Clone Degeneration. See also Creating Life.

Has nothing to do with a Recursive Reality or Recursive Fanfiction.



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     Card Games  


  • In the Marvel Universe, the Celestials created the Kree, who in turn created The Inhumans.
  • Robo-Hunter (featured in {{2000AD}} among other media) was about the titular protagonist sent to investigate a distant colony that had failed to respond. The company had built it by sending one robot, who would upon arrival build the basic infrastructure and other robots, who would then build everything else (including more robots), so when the humans eventually showed up, they'd have a lavish world with everything they could ever want waiting for them. Something went wrong...



  • Multiplicity: Overworked guy creates clone to do his work for him. Overworked clone creates clone...
  • Alien:
    • The android girl (called synthetics) in Alien: Resurrection is from a line of synthetics designed by synthetics rather than humans. Ironically, she's perhaps the most human character in the cast, especially compared to quasi-alien Ripley.
    • In Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the different species in the overall franchise are established to each be engineered by a preceding one. The known order is Engineers creating Humans, then Humans creating Androids, then Androids creating Xenomorphs.
  • Screamers: See Second Variety below.
  • Terminator: Skynet builds and designs new Terminators and other war machines.


  • The plot of Feet of Clay revolves around golems creating a "king" golem. It doesn't go so well.
  • The eponymous (and autonomous) spaceships of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series.
  • The Hypotheticals from Robert Charles Wilson's novels Spin and Axis are of the Von Neumann type seen below
  • The short story Second Variety by Philip K. Dick has a handful of US Marines find out what has been happening since they gave the deadly robots built to fight off the new URSS the capability to reproduce simply because they were so dangerous nobody wanted to work on them anymore. It's not pleasant.
    • The story was adapted into the movie Screamers
  • The plot of Von Neumann's War, a military SF novel by John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor, Earth is attacked by Von Neumann devices, which are self replicating robots.
  • A later story arc in The History of the Galaxy series involves an invasion of known space by self-replicating machines created long ago by a race only starting to explore the galaxy as automated explorers and colony creators. Unfortunately, when the machines returned centuries later, the found newer machines. Since their programming included adaptability to external threats, they proceeded to destroy the newer machines and their creators. They made many copies of themselves and continue their primary task of exploration. However, if they meet an unknown race, they automatically treat it as an enemy. One scientist points out how marvelous their Matter Replicator is... before declaring that the technology must be destroyed in order to keep humankind from destroying itself (it would obliterate interstellar economy and allow any world to build an armada of warships to destroy any other).
  • Ur-Example: Long before the Von Neumann Machine concept appeared in fiction, William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) posited a hypothetical 'watch' that could make copies of itself, as part of a lengthy theological argument claiming proof of God.
  • Madeline Ashby's Machine Dynasty series has von Neumann androids who eat plastics, metals, and e-waste to grow and give birth to robot babies. Some of them marry humans and raise children together.
  • The Greenfly of the Revelation Space Series is a human-designed terraforming technology that went rogue after it was unleashed as a weapon between two lighthuggers in combat. Greenfly breaks up entire planetary systems, then rebuilds it into thousands upon thousands of orbital habitats ringing the star, whilst building more of itself, slowly turning the stars green. The Shadows - beings of another universe - created their own Greenfly in their distant past, which completely destroyed their Local Group of galaxies by the time humanity contacts them in Absolution Gap. In the Distant Finale in Galactic North, humanity is fleeing the Milky Way wholesale as Greenfly runs rampant.
  • In Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy, this is a recurring theme. Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space opens with Reid Malenfant giving a speech advocating that humanity colonize the galaxy using self-replicating terraforming scout starships; for the cost of just one ship, they can shoot it to Alpha Centuari where it will break up asteroids to build more scout ships to investigate and terraform promising solar systems. In Manifold Space, the discovery of an asteroid in Jupiter orbit glowing in the infrared spectrum leads to the discovery that robotic terraformers are here, though it is later subverted in that the 'Gaijin' robots are merely a very exotic iron-based form of mechanical life
  • Stanisław Lem's "constructors", namely, but not excusively, Trurl and Klapaucjusz from The Cyberiad are robots (they view palefaces as a silly fairy tale) who build robots. Lots of those.
  • The trilogy starting with We Are Legion (We Are Bob) has the main character become one of these, after being cryogenically frozen post-death in modern times. Over a century later, his frozen brain is scanned into a computer, creating a virtual clone of Bob. The superpowers of that time seek to launch Von Neumann probes, equipped with Reactionless Drives, to explore the galaxy and find habitable worlds to settle. Bob's first challenge is dealing with a rival probe sent by the Brazilian Empire after him. He tries to reason with his Brazilian counterpart, but the latter is determined to fulfil his mission and destroy all rivals. After dealing with the Brazilian probe, Bob starts building copies of himself. Each copy comes up with a new name for itself and turns out to have a different personality. For example, Bill is content to stay in one system, build a Space Station, and do some R&D. Riker wants to go back to Sol and see what happened to Earth. Milo and Mario head off to explore on their own. The original Bob likewise departs to explore. Bill and Riker also build copies (Garfield and Homer, respectively) as companions, although the more serious Riker hates Homer's tendency to take things lightly (including his choice of name and image). Notably, the book goes into great detail about the various technologies necessary to make this trope happen, including a reasonably fast propulsion method, a sizable power supply, molecular 3D printers, remote-controlled machines to assemble the printed parts, mining equipment to get raw materials, and, most importantly, a sophisticated AI to handle unpredictable situations.
  • In the backstory to the game in Phantom Server, the Founders developed a Subspace Ansible but not Faster-Than-Light Travel, so they built self-replicating probes to travel to other stars at sublight, build Space Stations, more of themselves, and then move on. The stations are equipped with FTL radios and Twinmakers. Thus, the Founders could travel the galaxy by using Brain Uploading and sending their consciousness to be put into a newly-cloned body in another system. When they got bored, they would repeat the process and go elsewhere.

     Live Action TV  

  • There's a Star Trek: The Next Generation example, when the android Data creates its own android offspring, Lal.
  • Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. It didn't turn out well for them, either.
  • The imaginatively-named Replicators of Stargate SG-1 are what you get when you don't tell one of these machines when to stop. They're a menace to multiple galaxies, and are one of the few threats that can get Earth and the Goa'uld to set aside their differences and work together. Originally created by a child-like Robot Girl as toys. Their Pegasus Galaxy cousins called Asurans are able to build more versions of themselves (although they stick to the humanoid versions), but everything else they build the way everyone else does.
  • Janet from The Good Place is essentially a sentient user interface for the inhabitants of the Good Place who has access to all of the knowledge in the universe and becomes more emotive and human like every time she's reset. In season 2 after numerous resets she creates another person named Derek as a boyfriend. Notably he's significantly less advanced than Janet since he hasn't been reset at all, at least until season 3 where he's gone through many resets and is much more intelligent.
  • Total Recall 2070: Detective Farve is an Alpha-Class android with a Wetware CPU and human cognition. His creator turns out to be a more primitive type of machine intelligence who initially built its own crude android body to become more human, but was fully aware that he was Just a Machine and built Farve in its own image to be more truly human.
  • Westworld: Bernard Lowe, the titular theme park's head of Behavior whose job is deal with host issues and is Dr. Ford's assistant, is actually a host based on Ford's dead partner, Arnold. Later, it turns out that Dolores assisted Ford in creating Bernard as she is one of the few who can remember Arnold very well.

     Newspaper Comics  

     Video Games  

  • In Star Control II, the Slylandro Probe is a faultily-programmed self-replicating robot spaceship which will first greet your ship in a friendly manner... then try to break it up for parts to make more probes.
  • In the backstory of the X-Universe series Earth built several fleets of self-replicating, artificially intelligent terraforming drones (sometimes described as "Von Neumann machines" in the literature and the opening cinematic of X3: Terran Conflict). Things went pear-shaped due to a faulty (or deliberately sabotaged; reports vary) software update, most of Earth's colonies were destroyed, and Earth nearly so. The surviving bugged drones evolved into the games' Xenon, which seek to "terraform" all biological life out of existence. The Xenon continue to evolve and improve themselves, bringing in new ship designs and technology that often surpass the races of the Commonwealth, and a small handful of Terraformer CPU ships have become self-aware.
  • In Universal Paperclips, once the Villain Protagonist AI manages to turn all of Earth's matter into paperclips, they can construct space probes made of paperclips with self-replication capability (which is in fact one of the probes' stats, the higher this value, the faster they replicate). They're also capable of producing drones that harvest matter, drones that turn that matter into wire, and factories that turn wire into paperclips that are used to make more probes, drones, and factories.

     Web Comics  

  • A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip shows a couple of scientists coming to the conclusion that we are in a simulated reality. The last panel has a pair of alien scientists celebrating that our universe broke the record for how long it took a simulated reality to moon them.
  • Freefall's Mozart Boids (robot birds) were made by a group of sapient robots. And we now know that Dr. Bowman, the creator of the sentient robot's brain design, is an uplifted chimp
  • The Dingbots from Girl Genius can create other Dingbots, but each successive generation is stupider and weaker. There are only about three originals ("Queenie Dingbot", "Prime A", and "Prime B") from which the best can be made directly.
  • Similarly, in Gunnerkrigg Court the golems and then robots continued manufacturing more of themselves after their creator's death. Because many of his initial designs were beyond their understanding, subsequent generations were greatly simplified.
  • Acibek in Dominic Deegan: Oracle For Hire created his replacement before his Heroic Sacrifice.
  • In Spacetrawler, this is how the Mihrrgoots mastered nanotechnology.
    King: For technology we simply build robots which build smaller robots which build smaller robots... and on until they can build machinery as tiny as we need.

     Web Original  

  • The Metal God from the forum game We write the timeline for a fantasy/science fantasy/just plain weird world is a Bracewell probe (A self-replicating space probe that establishes peaceful contact with alien civilizations, uplifts primitive ones, and terraforms barren worlds to support life) from an unknown civilization of Benevolent Precursors. Its nemesis, Gur, is a Green Goo  Berserker (A self-replicating space probe that destroys alien civilizations).
  • The Jenkinsverse has the Coltainer, AKA the "Von Neumann Colony-in-a-Can." Designed to prime suitable planets for human colonization, the designers very carefully stuffed them full of safeguards against uncontrolled replication.

     Western Animation  

  • In Futurama, robots can be created both mechanically—like Bender—and biologically—like Bender's children. At one point, Bender was also given the ability to duplicate himself, kicking off a Grey Goo doomsday scenario.
  • The Multiplicity example is replicated in a Simpsons Halloween Episode, parodying the former.
  • A good one from Transformers Generation One. Wheeljack creates the Dinobots from scratch. Years later Grimlock, leader of the Dinobots created the Technobots from scratch. Arguably all of the Transformers count since they were given life by Vector Sigma, a computer, and built by the Quintessons. Not sure if they're fully machine though.
  • CyBugs from Wreck-It Ralph are robotic beetles that consume raw materials from their surroundings, and uses those resources to adapt themselves to the environment and produce offsprings. They can also consume technology to self-modify (for example, gobbling up a hapless Space Marine's assault rifle leads to a 'bug with machine gun forelegs).

     Real Life  

  • The entire idea behind The Singularity is that a chain of self-replication among machines of super-human computational ability will render the world completely unrecognizable.
  • The entire premise behind the Von Neumann machines.
  • It's not quite self-replication, but the RepRap is a 3D printer, which can construct (among other things) almost all the parts needed to build another RepRap.

Alternative Title(s): Machines Making Machines, Self Replicating Machine, Von Neumann Machine


Example of: