If you've read the more esoteric nanotechnology treatises, you're undoubtedly familiar with the concept of "programmable matter" -- micro- or nano-scale devices which can combine to form an amazing assortment of physical objects, reassembling into something entirely different as needed. This vision of nanotechnology is light years away from today's world of carbon nanotubes or even the practical-but-amazing world of nanofactories. It shouldn't surprise you, however, to note that -- despite its fantastical elements -- serious research is already underway heading down the path to programmable matter.
Called "claytronics" at Carnegie-Mellon University, and "dynamic physical rendering" at Intel (which is supporting the CMU work), the synthetic reality project has already made some tentative advances, and the researchers are confident of eventual success. Just how long "eventual" may be is subject to debate.
An ensemble of material that contains sufficient
local computation actuation storage energy sensing & communication
Which can be programmed to form interesting dynamic shapes and configurations.
Claytronics is their way of bringing this concept into reality.
With claytronics, millions of tiny individual devices -- "claytronic atoms" or "catoms" -- would assemble into macro-scale objects, connecting and disconnecting as they move. The current large proof-of-concept catoms (measuring 4.4 centimeters) connect and move via magnets, much like the "replicating" robots devised by Cornell last month; later versions, operating at scales where electromagnetic or electrostatic connections would be hard (or impossible) to control, will likely use something akin to the non-sticky adhesive found on geckos' feet. The catoms could have LCD or LED surfaces able to produce a faintly glowing image, so that what appeared to be a person (say) made of millions of tiny microbots would actually look like the person. That's important to Mowry and Goldstein -- they see claytronics as a way of being multiple places at once.
Claytronics research arose out of a combination of work on microscale computing devices and work on telepresence, so it's not surprising that the researchers emphasize the utility of the claytronics system as a means of doing virtual meetings with apparent physical presence. They also suggest that the system could have a role in telemedicine, allowing a patient and doctor to be on different continents, but each able to the physical presence of the other with claytronic emulations. As New Scientist puts it (subscription required), it's not teleportation, but it's the next best thing.
Videos of prototype catoms and animations of future designs in action can be found on the CMU website. As they make clear, the challenges remaining to work out for this vision to come about are profound. The hardware aspect of the task is obvious and significant: taking crude, clumsy massive devices and make them work at a size on the order of a cell. But the software challenge is, if anything, more staggering. Coordinating the work of a few dozen robots in a swarm is an incredibly hard problem, let alone being able to program millions to work in concert. How does each catom indicate its position, and know where to go? How do they indicate when a catom is missing or non-functional, and shift to take its place? How do they say, "now change?"
Goldstein and Mowry refer to the larger context of transmissable synthetic reality as "pario," from the Latin for "create, make, produce, bring forth," and put together a simple presentation (PDF) describing how the system works. To me, the vision they describe seems both possible (eventually) and remarkably timid. Programmable matter is as much of a leap over fabbing as fabbing is over current rapid prototyping. It's beyond "design for disassembly" -- it's "design for infinite reassembly."
(Via We Make Money Not Art)
We've also mentioned before (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001606.html) that the folks at Xerox PARC have been working on this for several years as well. They call it "smart matter" or "digital clay", and one of their primary objectives is to make robots with multiple mobilities. Imagine a search-and-rescue robot that can roll, slither, or walk, depending on the terrain/obstacles encountered.
And SF author David Brin seems to have beaten everybody to the punch:
See "Kiln People":
Claytronics and catoms
There has been an interesting development recently that kinda combines nanotechnology with telepresence. The idea is that you create small robots or 'catoms' of a few milimeters in size (eventually perhaps even a few nanometers in size) and then have them organise themselves into a shpe that you determine remotely. For example you might have an individual located at a remote location have a 'claytronic' model of himself move, gesture and generaly mirror all of his actions. It would be as if he had projected a solid image of himself. This technology would enable engineers to work remotely in physicaly hostile environments or surgeons to perform intricate surgery on enlarged claytronic replicas of organs, whilst the actual organs are being worked upon by a claytronic replica of the surgeon.
This technology may seem a little far fetched and more than a little sci-fi, however work has already begun on such technology. Backed by the microchip manufacturer Intel, first generation catoms, measuring 4.4 centimetres in diameter and 3.6 cenimetres in height have already been created. These catoms, which are ringed by several electromagnets are able to move around each other to form a variety of shapes. Containing rudimentary processors and drawing electricity from a board that they rest upon. So far only four catoms have been operated together. The plan though is to have thousands of them moving around each other to form whatever shape is desired and to change colour, also as required.
For these claytronic manifestations to organise themselves, it has been suggested that they adjust the size and locations of empty chambers within a groups general structure to form raised areas or troughs. This would allow their overal shape to be controlled quite delicately. Photocensors and pressure sensors would allow input to be transmitted to watever location is required.
This technology is still in its infancy, but promises the potential of affected humanity quite profoundly in future decades.
Please come discuss this topic with us at TeleportationNow. We advocate the research and development of teleportation technology.
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