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]


Predicting future technologies with Eric Drexler

Tom James @ 07-07-2009

chipEric Drexler describes how you can apply scientific methods to assess the lower bounds of the capabilities of future technologies:

A subset of the potential capabilities of future levels of technology can be understood by means of a design process that can be described as exploratory engineering. This process resembles the first phase of standard design engineering (termed conceptual engineering, or conceptual design), but it serves a different purpose

In the early 20th century, a missing fabrication technology was the combination of engineering expertise and metalworking techniques (among others) that were required to build large aerospace vehicles. The physics of rocket propulsion, however, were well understood, and the strength and weight of large, well-made aluminum structures could be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

On the basis of exploratory engineering applied to this kind of knowledge, engineers who studied the matter were confident that orbital flight could be achieved by means of multistage chemically fueled rockets.

This was an element of Drexler’s Engines of Creation I found especially compelling: that we should base our ideas of future technologies not on what we already have, but what lies within the bounds of what is possible by physical laws as we understand them.

[image from quapan on flickr]


Science vs. engineering: Drexler waxes philosophical

Tom James @ 17-06-2009

engineering_scienceEric Drexler discusses the hinterland between two of the great pillars of human endeavour – science and engineering – and what they are:

Inquiry and design are seldom separate, so how can it be meaningful to call some activities “science”, and others “engineering”? I think it’s best to look beyond the mixture of inquiry and design in a project, and to consider instead its purpose. If the intended result is knowledge — a better model of what exists in the world and how it works — I think of it as science. If the intended result is a new product, process, or design methodology, I think of it as engineering.

This epistemiological discussion is with a serious goal in mind, to consider how emergent nanotechnological developments might be engineered to create products and processes we can all use:

Unlike high-energy particle physics or space science, nanotechnology springs from fields (surface science, materials science, chemistry, biology) that have no tradition of developing conceptual designs for complex systems, debating the knowns, unknowns, costs, benefits, alternative objectives, alternative solutions, and so forth, to eventually converge on objectives that coordinate the work of hundreds or thousands for a decade or more.

Without a tradition of this sort, large opportunities can go unrecognized — and in part because they are large. This will change, but I doubt that the change will be led from within.

It’s an interesting point. At what point does scientific research transfer into engineering development, and thence into entrepreneurial opportunity?

[image from jenny downing on flickr]


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]


Viruses for nanotech components

Tom James @ 02-06-2009

virusTurns out viruses are good for more than just killing cancer cells. Researchers at MIT have developed a method whereby viruses are coated with iron phosphate, then attached to carbon nanotubes, thus creating  the building-blocks of nanoscale electrical components:

This advanced ‘bio-industrial’ manufacturing process, which uses biological agents to assemble molecules, could help to evolve key energy material components (e.g. cathodes, anodes, membranes) used in batteries, fuel cells, solar cells and organic electronics (e.g. OLEDs).

It’s interesting to see how researchers are making use of the native biological territory instead of reinventing the wheel when it comes to nanotechnology – using viruses to make nanomaterials to make power cells.

[from Future Blogger][image from noii’s on flickr]


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