Remake your world with Claytronics

Tom James @ 27-07-2009

catom-prototypeResearchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon are developing programmable matter: material consisting of tiny machines that can be reconfigured into many different shapes:

How can a material be intelligent? By being made up of particle-sized machines. At Carnegie Mellon, with support from Intel, the project is called Claytronics. The idea is simple: make basic computers housed in tiny spheres that can connect to each other and rearrange themselves.

Wach particle, called a Claytronics atom or Catom, is less than a millimeter in diameter. With billions you could make almost any object you wanted.

The concept sounds like a macroscopic version of nanotechnological utility fog. The image is of the most up to date Catom, which is still in the centimetre size range.

The challenges and opportunities presented by this technology are immense. One of the opportunities lies with the promise of fungible computing, where you can split the hardware into smaller units but you still have functional items:

Right now, computers are not fungible. With programmable matter, they would be. That same cubic meter of a billion catoms is essentially a network of a billion computers. That’s a lot of computational power – more than enough to organize it into different shapes. And if the computer was separated into sections, the overall computing power would still be the same.

By making “tech” modular in this way the notion of discrete machines for different tasks goes away – you have a generic, all-purpose substance that you can lump together (like clay) to make the things you want.

[from Singularity Hub][image from Singularity Hub]


How will the earliest nanofactories emerge?

Tom James @ 04-06-2009

dimensionsJ Storrs Hall of the Foresight institute comments on what the earliest nanofactories will be like, and Michael Anissimov responds:

If nanofactories work at all, they will be very powerful. A nanofactory would be a very complicated, “huge” thing. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology compares the complexity of a molecular assembler to that of a Space Shuttle. I think the analogy would be apt for a nanofactory as well. We are talking about a miniature factory with more moving parts and individual computers than a typical 100 million-dollar modern factory today. Difficulties with the basic technology will manifest themselves in the pre-nanofactory stage, working with individual assemblers or small ensembles of assemblers. If you’ve made it all the way to nanofactory-level MNT, you’ve already jumped the primary technological hurdles.

A point of disagreement between Anissimov and Hall is the precise definiton of “nanofactory.” Is it simply a general term for a device that can create many other things including a copy of itself, or it is a specific desktop-scale universal assembler?

Assuming the latter definition, Anissimov argues that widespread adoption of desktop nanofactories will happen much more rapidly than that of personal computers because:

There are simply too many moving parts for micromanagement to be possible — either the “code-level” operations are automated or they haven’t been established yet.

Either they work or they don’t. The smallest replicating unit is equivalent to the transistor in a personal computer – to the user it is expected to behave as a black box that performs a specific function – and if it fails to there is not much the user can do about it (if a transistor fails on a microchip can it even be repaired?).

The appropriate analogy is therefore between computers and nanofactories is between the existence of nanofactories and the existence of microchips. Microchips have found their way all over the place…

If Anissimov is right then it raises the interesting possibility that mature, desktop-scale nanofabrication may achieve widespread consumer adoption over a startlingly short period, given the ability of the machine to make copies of itself and the fact if it fulfils its basic function then it can become incredibly useful to many people very quickly.

[via Next Big Future][image from jurvetson on flickr]


The inevitability of global government

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2009

United Nations, GenevaMichael Anissimov found an intriguing (and rather odd) post by one Britt Gillette, which argues that a single monolithic global government is not only possible but inevitable, and that the driving force will be the rise of molecular manufacturing technology:

Imagine a scenario in which a single individual in possession of unrestricted technology and resources could conquer the entire world. This will be our world in the era of molecular manufacturing. With such high stakes and an almost infinite number of potential threats, the world population will require some means of defense. And that defense will require around-the-clock, ever-present surveillance of the world at large.

A system of safeguards will have to be constructed in order to prevent emerging nation states, terrorist groups, and individuals from breaching the peace. A single global government will go a long way toward eliminating military conflict, as there will be only one military power with a unified purpose. However, in the era of molecular manufacturing, competing militaries could rise quickly, and to prevent a loss of its governing monopoly, a global government will have to deploy unprecedented measures.

This surveillance could be “god-like” in scope – seeing everything, hearing everything, and knowing everything. Imagine “nanodust” – nanoscale cameras and listening devices as plentiful and as difficult to remove as common, everyday dust. MM will enable the construction of trillions of these sophisticated devices at negligible cost.

It’s quite a lengthy post, looking at trends in political detente and weapons stockpiling since WW2 to justify the argument. Beyond the paragraphs quoted above it gets all Bible-literalist, but there’s some genuine logical thought going on before Gillette invokes a themed short-story anthology of dubious editorial provenance as a guide to future inevitabilities, and Anissimov concedes the validity of molecular manufacturing as a game-changing technology:

… MM will not arrive tomorrow, and probably not in the next decade (maybe in the next two), but if it does, I believe that global government is indeed probable, whether you like it or not. Go read Nanosystems. Even if MNT is implausible, hijacked ribosomes would still give rise to exponential manufacturing, so even “soft machines” could lead to the ability to build millions of missiles in less than a couple years. The crucial effects are the exponentiality and programmability.

I’d go with global government being plausible, but I’m not entirely sure it’s the most likely scenario. Personally, I tend to think that governance will become radically decentralised as the nation-state concept finally dissolves; molecular manufacturing would accelerate the erosion of geography that communications technology has already begun. Much as in the original comic books version of Watchmen, I think the only thing that could unite the planet into a single body would be an external existential threat on an equivalent scale to an alien invasion – and I don’t consider one of those to be very likely at all! [image by lilivanili]

That said, I think a global framework based on communications that allows local governments to interact with each other on an equal footing is fairly likely – as well as more appealing than the thought of some bureaucratic behemoth spanning the planet.

But I’m aware that’s not a majority opinion – so what do you lot think? Is a single global government inevitable, and would such a thing be desirable? What would be its causes, and what would be its flaws?


Eric Drexler on global warming

Tom James @ 08-01-2009

rainbowFor this year’s Edge Question “What will change everything?” Eric Drexler’s answer is simultaneously depressing and heartening:

In the bland words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “only in the case of essentially complete elimination of emissions can the atmospheric concentration of CO2 ultimately be stabilised at a constant [far higher!] level.” This heroic feat would require new technologies and the replacement of today’s installed infrastructure for power generation, transportation, and manufacturing. This seems impossible. In the real world, Asia is industrializing, most new power plants burn coal, and emissions are accelerating, increasing the rate of increase of the problem.

Drexler dismisses the “magic nanotechnology” trope and suggests what technological developments could do for us:

According to fiction and pop culture, it seems that all tiny machines are robots made of diamond, and they’re dangerous magic — smart and able to do almost anything for us, but apt to swarm and multiply and maybe eat everything, probably including your socks.

A solar array area, that if aggregated, would fit in a corner of Texas, could generate 3 terawatts. In the course of 10 years, 3 terawatts would provide enough energy remove all the excess carbon the human race has added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began. So far as carbon emissions are concerned, this would fix the problem.

Drexler has further discussion of his essay on his blog, Metamodern.

[at Edge.org with further comment at Drexler’s blog][image from ktylerconk on flickr]


A Chemical Brain To Control Nanobots

Tomas Martin @ 14-03-2008

A brain to control all those tiny machines rebuilding your bodyNanotechnology is perhaps the most rapidly advancing new technology out there right now. All kinds of nanomachines based on biochemical mechanisms, tiny structures of metal or other techniques are being created and studied in universities and laboratories around the world.

Scientists have now created a device two billionths of a metre in size that could work as a chemical ‘brain’ for a group of nanomachines. Potentially this could lead to their use in medical techniques such as nano-surgery on tumours.

“If [in the future] you want to remotely operate on a tumour you might want to send some molecular machines there,” explained Dr Anirban Bandyopadhyay of the International Center for Young Scientists, Tsukuba, Japan. “But you cannot just put them into the blood and [expect them] to go to the right place.”

Dr Bandyopadhyay believes his device may offer a solution. One day they may be able to guide the nanobots through the body and control their functions, he said.

“That kind of device simply did not exist; this is the first time we have created a nano-brain,” he told BBC News.

[story and image via BBC Science/Nature. Thanks to Kian Momtahan for the link!]


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