Programmable Matter: Claytronics or Gershenfeld

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We still tell our children “you can be anything when you grow up.” It’s time to start telling them “you’re going to be able to make anything…right now.” Similar work at MIT and Carnegie Mellon is pointing towards the next revolution in computers and manufacturing: programmable matter. In the future you won’t use computers to design a car, the car will form from billions of tiny computers that arrange themselves into anything you want. The physical and computational world will merge. Hope you’re ready.

Claytronics is developing tiny computers that can form shapes. Here is their cylindrical protoype.

Claytronics is developing tiny computers that can work together to form shapes. This cylindrical prototype is about 3cm across, 10 times bigger than the goal.

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. It’s the same concept as we saw with Modular Robotics, only on a smaller scale. Each particle, called a Claytronics atom or Catom, is less than a millimeter in diameter. With billions you could make almost any object you wanted. See the concept video after the break.

Carnegie Mellon isn’t the only university pursuing intelligent materials. MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) is actively trying to merge physics and computer science. Neil Gershenfeld, CBA’s director and one of the leaders in computational physics, is seeking to design, build and program computers that are what they compute. He’s taking the “bit” and turning it into an “it,” instead of the other way around.

It All Looks Good on Paper

It would be amazing if these technologies were available today, but they are still a long way off. In fact, as far as accomplishments, modular robotics on the human sized scale have shown a lot more success. What makes CBA and Claytronics so interesting is that they are proceeding at a steady (albeit slow) pace and making clear progress in the underlying research of the concept.

In hardware, Claytronics has already made centimeter sized cylindrical catoms that have basic features. They can latch together and recognize when they are latched, and they can be moved using electrostatic forces. Carnegie Mellon is also researching how to power the catoms using magnetic resonance coupling (having each catom convert a magnetic field into electricity). Catoms will be so small that electric forces will be more important than gravity so they’re using helium filled cubes to test how catoms will work when gravity is no longer the dominate force.

To test Catom forces without gravity, helium filled prototypes are used.

To test Catom forces without gravity, helium filled prototypes are used.

Software research is just as rigorous. Programmers have to create a system where catoms can communicate wirelessly over relatively long ranges and with little power. In a single cubic meter, there could be a billion catoms. That means a billion computers trying to talk to each other and move themselves to form a shape. It’s a daunting task but it’s helped by a great concept known as “fungibility.”

When something is fungible, not only is twice as many twice as useful, half as many is half as useful. Bread is fungible, a human is not. Cut one in half and you still have food, cut the other in half and you go to jail. 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. Don’t try that with your laptop.

Fungbility is a concept that Gershenfeld at CBA can really get behind. At TED 2006, he discussed how programmable matter and fungible computers will allow you to “pour out” as much computer as you need to solve a problem. The amount of computational strength you need would be matched by a physical quantity in the real world. Watch his talk below, but be warned: it’s long, he talks fast, and some of the ideas are a little heady.

What will it mean for us to be Post-Scarcity?

For those of you who managed through all seventeen minutes of Gershenfeld’s talk, you’ll notice a lot of it didn’t have anything to do with programmable matter at all. He started discussing “fabrication labs” as well. The two concepts are related. When you have programmable matter, tiny computers will be able to form into any shape. You’ll be able to make almost anything. So what will we do with this technology?

Working with non-programmable matter, Gershenfeld organized a lab with some basic tools: a laser cutter, milling machines, a sign cutter, and programming instruments. Costing somewhere around $20,000 these basic labs can make almost any useful modern device. Computer boards, antennas, you name it. He shared these labs with educational groups all over the world. What did he find? Human ingenuity is more powerful than previously expected.

Children, and adults, were designing chips, tools, and many other inventions to solve local problems. By providing the means, local solutions arose from local inventors. This, my friends, is one of the most promising aspects of programmable matter: when we can build anything, we can solve any problem. The programmable matter will provide the computational power and the physical forms that we can organize into tools to fix…well…everything.

That’s the dream, and I believe in it, but I would be amiss if I didn’t point out the nightmare. Look at the weapons humanity has made from sticks and stones and you can begin to imagine the destruction that could be unleashed with programmable matter. Even if we learn to love and let live, the programmable matter will have a huge amount of computational power, enough to support artificial intelligence. Can we hope to control a material that can out-think and out-build us?

Fear doesn’t help us much, however. Intelligent material isn’t just a powerful and promising concept, it’s an inevitable invention. Computer chip manufacturers are creating smaller and smaller devices, modular robotics are becoming more sophisticated, and artificial intelligence is pre-natal but growing. These trends will converge and lead us to programmable matter eventually. Instead of fearing that development, we can work to understand it better and harness it for limitless possibilities.

Because that’s a real likelihood. The world could really use programmable matter to move beyond living for day to day necessities and start exploring humanity’s potential. When everyone has access to a fabrication lab that can make almost anything, the world will be populated by inventors. Not only will every cubic meter have billions of computers, the world will have 7 billion (or more) human minds guiding those computers to new discoveries. In our life times, or our children’s, we will come to realize an inevitable and quite literal truth: the world is what we make it.

Discussion — 24 Responses

  • krunkster July 23, 2009 on 7:13 pm

    I really liked this article. Programmable matter sounds really awesome, but I what I really enjoyed was how you talked about the impact.

  • krunkster July 23, 2009 on 3:13 pm

    I really liked this article. Programmable matter sounds really awesome, but I what I really enjoyed was how you talked about the impact.

  • robot makes music July 23, 2009 on 7:34 pm

    The only way we can hope to cope with such a thing is to become such a thing.

    And, if this is what the public gets to see, you can bet DARPA’s funding the programmable matter projects we don’t get to hear about for another 10 or 20 years, when we learn about them because they’re turning foreigners to jelly.

  • robot makes music July 23, 2009 on 3:34 pm

    The only way we can hope to cope with such a thing is to become such a thing.

    And, if this is what the public gets to see, you can bet DARPA’s funding the programmable matter projects we don’t get to hear about for another 10 or 20 years, when we learn about them because they’re turning foreigners to jelly.

  • Aaron Saenz July 23, 2009 on 10:52 pm

    I don’t think the programmable matter has the ability to disassemble objects to a molecular level. Consumption and replication (or turning foreigners to jelly) is probably more of a nano-tech concept. The focus here is on computation and production. Still, those DARPA kids have the niftiest toys…

  • Aaron Saenz July 23, 2009 on 6:52 pm

    I don’t think the programmable matter has the ability to disassemble objects to a molecular level. Consumption and replication (or turning foreigners to jelly) is probably more of a nano-tech concept. The focus here is on computation and production. Still, those DARPA kids have the niftiest toys…

  • Brian July 25, 2009 on 2:37 am

    Making almost anything requires a large amount of resources, some of which are or will be quite scarce in the coming years. Unless fab labs can perform alchemy and transmute abundant raw materials into soon-to-be-depleted resources, Gershenfeld’s vision will be no more than a pipe dream.

  • Brian July 24, 2009 on 10:37 pm

    Making almost anything requires a large amount of resources, some of which are or will be quite scarce in the coming years. Unless fab labs can perform alchemy and transmute abundant raw materials into soon-to-be-depleted resources, Gershenfeld’s vision will be no more than a pipe dream.

  • digitalcole July 25, 2009 on 3:16 am

    @Brian, it depends on the resources if it’s something complex then ya but, I don’t think we’re headed that way. Even if something like that were to occur then we’d probably just make the stuff reusable and *that* would be the ultimate in recycling. A rough example would be if I were to create some sort of computational device and after a period of time someone else comes up with a better design then, instead of throwing away my device and starting over, I’d just disassemble my current device down to the most basic components then reassemble to the new specifications.

    After watching the video I can see the patterns that Gershenfeld was referring to as far as continuous personal customization…essentially no limits to personal expression.

  • digitalcole July 24, 2009 on 11:16 pm

    @Brian, it depends on the resources if it’s something complex then ya but, I don’t think we’re headed that way. Even if something like that were to occur then we’d probably just make the stuff reusable and *that* would be the ultimate in recycling. A rough example would be if I were to create some sort of computational device and after a period of time someone else comes up with a better design then, instead of throwing away my device and starting over, I’d just disassemble my current device down to the most basic components then reassemble to the new specifications.

    After watching the video I can see the patterns that Gershenfeld was referring to as far as continuous personal customization…essentially no limits to personal expression.

  • anonymous coward July 27, 2009 on 12:23 am

    Reminds me of this (german audio): http://www.dw-world.de/popups/popup_single_mediaplayer/0,,3008100_start_57_end_488_type_video_struct_3210,00.html?mytitle=Baubotanik%2B%25E2%2580%2593%2Bvom%2BLeben%2Bund%2BWohnen%2Bauf%2Bden%2BB%25C3%25A4umen%2B

  • anonymous coward July 26, 2009 on 8:23 pm

    Reminds me of this (german audio): http://www.dw-world.de/popups/popup_single_mediaplayer/0,,3008100_start_57_end_488_type_video_struct_3210,00.html?mytitle=Baubotanik%2B%25E2%2580%2593%2Bvom%2BLeben%2Bund%2BWohnen%2Bauf%2Bden%2BB%25C3%25A4umen%2B

  • Lennon July 27, 2009 on 6:29 am

    What a total revolution that would be. I’m a little wary at this point about if there will be some security and safety issues when we all have the ability to create just about anything we want. What if I create a weapon or get destructive with the power? I really don’t think we will have software that can determine if an object or system is destructive, which is an idea I can anticipate being floated as an answer to this. @Brian I agree with @digitalcole that it depends on what resources are required. Which resources do you expect to be scarce in the next 20 years and what impact on manufacturing do you expect it to cause? If the fab-lab style fabrication is being done with tiny mechanical units we’re talking about the fabrication requirements of the units themselves. I really hope that we eventually have a mechanosynthesis-like nanotech where we could indeed destruct any material to its constituents. Then we would have all the resources we could ever dream of. At least for todays dreams. But that’s a whole different type of science… I wonder if we’ll be able to get to that scale through machines like this?

  • Lennon July 27, 2009 on 2:29 am

    What a total revolution that would be. I’m a little wary at this point about if there will be some security and safety issues when we all have the ability to create just about anything we want. What if I create a weapon or get destructive with the power? I really don’t think we will have software that can determine if an object or system is destructive, which is an idea I can anticipate being floated as an answer to this. @Brian I agree with @digitalcole that it depends on what resources are required. Which resources do you expect to be scarce in the next 20 years and what impact on manufacturing do you expect it to cause? If the fab-lab style fabrication is being done with tiny mechanical units we’re talking about the fabrication requirements of the units themselves. I really hope that we eventually have a mechanosynthesis-like nanotech where we could indeed destruct any material to its constituents. Then we would have all the resources we could ever dream of. At least for todays dreams. But that’s a whole different type of science… I wonder if we’ll be able to get to that scale through machines like this?

  • Aaron July 27, 2009 on 6:36 am

    Even without the ability to consume other materials and reproduce, programmable matter raises the possibility of a single-product lifestyle. Instead of buying an iPod, a car, and a nice suit, you could just by X kilograms of smart materials. Your iPod would rearrange to become your car, or your suit as the situation arose. Extra mass could be shunted off into a storage unit. The possibilities are certainly extraordinary.

  • Aaron July 27, 2009 on 2:36 am

    Even without the ability to consume other materials and reproduce, programmable matter raises the possibility of a single-product lifestyle. Instead of buying an iPod, a car, and a nice suit, you could just by X kilograms of smart materials. Your iPod would rearrange to become your car, or your suit as the situation arose. Extra mass could be shunted off into a storage unit. The possibilities are certainly extraordinary.

  • Ryan Brohman July 27, 2009 on 4:02 pm

    Very interesting. Sounds like something right out of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

    Looking forward to seeing this progress.

    There’s a science festival coming soon to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, ON that I plan to attend. http://www.q2cfestival.com/program

    One of the lectures focuses on the future of computing and looks specifically at the potential of “fab labs”. Hope I can get tickets to this one.

  • Ryan Brohman July 27, 2009 on 12:02 pm

    Very interesting. Sounds like something right out of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

    Looking forward to seeing this progress.

    There’s a science festival coming soon to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, ON that I plan to attend. http://www.q2cfestival.com/program

    One of the lectures focuses on the future of computing and looks specifically at the potential of “fab labs”. Hope I can get tickets to this one.

  • shah September 29, 2009 on 8:04 pm

    impressive
    videos and report are good
    i’ve also go through the many videos and saw many many reports and having ideas
    the main issue that will come while developing the catom that will power(electric power)
    wherefrom catom get the power
    from where catom get the current to do its job

    it can be possible by the concept of super conductivity

  • shah September 29, 2009 on 4:04 pm

    impressive
    videos and report are good
    i’ve also go through the many videos and saw many many reports and having ideas
    the main issue that will come while developing the catom that will power(electric power)
    wherefrom catom get the power
    from where catom get the current to do its job

    it can be possible by the concept of super conductivity

  • Melissa October 14, 2009 on 3:33 pm

    You can see this in action on the crazy morphing suitcase video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFK58xVXego

  • Melissa October 14, 2009 on 11:33 am

    You can see this in action on the crazy morphing suitcase video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFK58xVXego

  • Linda B November 14, 2009 on 12:34 am

    GAD !!! Where can I get some, NOW !
    A changing fortress I shall build to keep ‘him’ away and confused. YAY !! I do that already, but still…

  • Linda B November 13, 2009 on 8:34 pm

    GAD !!! Where can I get some, NOW !
    A changing fortress I shall build to keep ‘him’ away and confused. YAY !! I do that already, but still…