Programming matter


Remember the shape-changing T-1000 robot in the 1991 movie Terminator 2? It could disguise itself as anything—a policeman, the floor, whatever—and sprout tools and weapons as required.

It turns out it may very well have given us a glimpse of a very real future (though hopefully without the whole Armageddon-like-conflict-between-robots-and-humans thing).

Researchers right now are working on “programmable matter,” matter that can be ordered to assemble itself into…well, pretty much anything. You could think of it as a 3D equivalent of the pixels on a computer screen.

Imagine a bracelet that could morph into whatever electronic gadget you required, from cell-phone to pocket computer; a 3D model of a prototype car that automobile executives (if such people still exist in the future—a long shot, I know) could examine at the board-room table and tweak as desired; a single tool in your toolbox that could become a hammer, screwdriver, wrench or blade as required; a block of matter in a small apartment that could shape itself into pieces of furniture as needed; or (most creepily) a lifelike T-1000-like simulacrum of someone from the other side of the world you’re having a telephone conversation with.

Sure it sounds like science fiction, because it is—but so were computers, nuclear power and space travel before they burst into the public consciousness. And just as happened with those advances, the research that may give us programmable matter is bubbling along at labs all over the world.

There are a lot of different approaches being taken. One is Intel Corporation’s “claytronics.”

In Intel’s vision, programmable matter will be made up of tiny robots they’ve dubbed “catoms,” since they’re essentially artificial atoms which combine in various ways to create a desired object.

Each catom will contain computing power, memory, and the ability to store and share power and information with its fellows. Intel wants to eventually make each catom a sphere about 100 microns—1/10th of a millimeter, about the size of a fine grain of sand—in diameter. If that sounds too cramped to contain any computing power, you don’t realize just how miniaturized computers have become.

“This is acres of space for nanoelectronic circuits,” is how Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology officer puts it.

With catoms that size, he says, “You could have a cup full of (them), or a tray, and (they) can be programmed to take on any arbitrary shape.”

That’s the goal. Right now, though, instead of making spheres, Intel is making cylinders, little tubes, each with 24 electromagnets around its circumference which can be powered on or off to move the catom in relationship to other catoms as their computers exchange information based on their programming.

These prototype catoms are about one millimeter in diameter and about 10 millimetres long. At a smaller size the electromagnets would give way to electrostatic forces.

Despite—or because of—the tiny sizes involved, the remaining challenges are immense. A lot of the work Intel is doing is aimed at developing the necessary programming to tell thousands of cooperating but distributed processors how to work together to create a particular object. New programming languages, algorithms and debugging tools are needed. (And what happens when someone develops a computer virus that attacks your programmable matter? Hmmm…is that a science fiction story I see before me?)

How close is all this? Jason Campbell, one of the key researchers at Intel working on the project, says his personal estimate of how long it will take has gone down from 50 years, when he started working there four years ago, to “just a couple more years.”

And remember, Intel’s is only one lab researching programmable matter, and their approach is only one of those under development. Eventually, one of these approaches may give us artificial, programmable atoms roughly the size of real atoms. And at that point…

Well, Clarke’s Law (formulated by famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) pretty much covers it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

If programmable matter really takes off, we’re going to enter a world where the mythical powers of wizards will become available to all of us.

Whether you find that exhilarating or scary probably depends on your view of human nature.

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    • Janet on April 2, 2009 at 5:24 pm
    • Reply

    Hm. I thought this post was about A programming matter so I ignored it. Good thing my mother has turned into a fan and prodded me over here. Interesting stuff.

    When you think about it, we’re already using a lot of technology that would seem magic to a medieval mind. Starting with light switches.

    • Robert on April 1, 2009 at 10:26 pm
    • Reply

    As I recall, wasn’t that the secret behind the mysterious collapse of the civilization in Forbidden Planet? Might just want to have the ethics committee review that movie before approving carte blanch on this!

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