Researchers 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]
The old chestnut of fully automatic cars trundled a little bit closer with the development of EM2P by the European research group EMMA:
“We sought to hide the underlying complexity of in-car embedded sensors so that developers could quickly design new applications with existing electronics,” explains Antonio Marqués Moreno, coordinator of the EMMA project. “EMMA will foster cost-efficient ambient intelligence systems with optimal performance, high reliability, reduced time-to-market and faster deployment.”
The project hopes that, by hiding the complexity of the underlying infrastructure, its work will open up new prospects in the field of embedded, cooperating wireless objects.
The key of the idea is to make a middleware application between the embedded sensors in cars and designers who want to develop interesting and useful applications.
it could also work between cars – opening the prospect of cooperating cars – and, of course, it can work with traffic infrastructure like lights, warning signs, and other signalling information. All of this via the same middleware platform.
Also a possible route of entry for a hypothetical Internet of Things.
[from ICT results, via Physorg][image from Nrbelex on flickr]
DARPA are still at it busily inventing the all the science-fictional goodness we expect and deserve. Now they’re going in for programmable matter, of a similar flavour to that found in Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Accelerando by Charles Stross, and Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The goal of the project is to create matter that can “self-assemble or alter their shape, perform a function and then disassemble themselves.”:
One day, that could lead to “morphing aircraft and ground vehicles, uniforms that can alter themselves to be comfortable in any climate, and ’soft’ robots that flow like mercury through small openings to enter caves and bunker complexes.” A soldier could even reach into a can of unformed goop, and order up a custom-made tool or a “universal spare part.”
One team from Harvard is working on a kind of “generalized Rubik’s Cube” that can fold into all kinds of shapes. Another is trying to order large strands of synthetic DNA to bind together in a “molecular Velcro.” An MIT group is building “’self-folding origami’ machines that use specialized sheets of material with built-in actuators and data. These machines use cutting-edge mathematical theorems to fold themselves into virtually any three-dimensional object.
Very powerful and potentially gamechanging. Presumably if and when these become available to the general public they will have various restrictions built into them that will promptly be overcome and hacked origami-tools will become the ultimate criminal penknife.
On a more cheerful not this have wonderful applications in art and performance.
[from Danger Room]
Here’s another military sf trope to add to the list of fictional gadgets gradually becoming a battlefield reality. This time it’s the turn of smart dust… though the team at Tel Aviv University have called it ‘smart dew’ instead:
Dozens, hundreds and even thousands of these Smart Dew sensors – each equipped with a controller and RF transmitter/receiver – can also be wirelessly networked to detect the difference between man, animal, car and truck.
Each individual “dew droplet” can detect an intrusion within a parameter of 50 meters (about 165 feet). And at a cost of 25 cents per “droplet,” Prof. Shapira says that his solution is the cheapest and the smartest on the market.
A part of the appeal of Smart Dew is its near-invisibility, Prof. Shapira says. “Smart Dew is a covert monitoring system. Because the sensors in the Smart Dew wireless network are so small, you would need bionic vision to notice them. There would be so many tiny droplets over the monitored area that it would be impossible to find each and every one.”
Not quite the nanoscopic modular machines of fiction, then, but surely their primitive progenitors. Not to mention another example of military hardware that will litter disputed regions for years to come… somehow I doubt they’ve done much planning about how to retrieve them all once their job is done. [image from linked article]