Imagine a bracelet or watch that changes into something else when you take it off. Perhaps it becomes a cell phone, tablet, or computer. Although this scenario may seem like science fiction, this and much more will soon become reality with a ground-breaking new technology known as claytronics.
Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and Intel Research Labs Pittsburgh are just a few years away from bringing to life a futuristic simulation system that can morph nearly any object imagined into another object with different size, shape, color and function.
The building units that make this amazing system possible include tiny micro robots called claytronics atoms, or 'catoms', which interact with each other. They behave like atoms in the sense that they become the basic building blocks of the objects they are programmed to form.
Each component becomes part of a computerized network of objects and identifies itself based on function; for example, a catom might see itself as part of a human body. On command, millions, or even billions of catoms working together would fall in place to create, in this case, a replicate of a live person.
With claytronics, matter can be transformed into any shape for any purpose. Furniture could change shape; blank walls could grow doors or windows. Catoms could form into people that we would find difficult to discern from the real person. They would appear as an actual physical being, not a hologram.
Aerospace scientist and best-selling author Wil McCarthy, in a recent presentation to our Las Vegas Futurists group, discussed the many possible benefits of claytronics, which he believes could one day "touch on nearly every aspect of our lives, from clothing to transportation to communications to housing."
The ability to 'program' the world around us will influence everything that is important to the human experience; especially our safety and well being, McCarthy said.
For example, should we be at risk; programmable clothing would become stronger than steel, while still maintaining its light weight. Sensing danger, these 'smart clothes' could form an impenetrable shield to stop bullets and knives from piercing our skin; or become cushion-like to protect us from auto accidents.
On command, walls in our homes could light up with a radiant glow; TVs would look less like moving pictures and more like 3-D windows; and as wild as this may sound, we could actually move doors and windows to different walls. There is almost no end to the magic that this technology could create.
Claytronics would reduce the number of furniture pieces required in a home. A dinner table might be changed to a poker table for a party, then into a bed at night. In addition, a single room could be used as living-room, dining area and bedroom, simply by morphing furniture at different times.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is considering systems that allow combat equipment to change shape automatically. This military research organization wants to create uniforms that transform texture and color on command to keep soldiers comfortable in extreme weather conditions.
DARPA is also developing shape-shifting robots that can flow like mercury through small openings to sneak into caves and bunkers (think the liquefying robot in Terminator2). Another far out dream for this futuristic-thinking organization is programmable skin that could change racial features on command.
However, the biggest advantage in claytronics may lie in communications. People on both ends of a phone call could be copied; and these copies would mimic the exact looks and movements of the person being replicated. At each end of the line, a real person is interacting with a replica. Think Skype; but instead of viewing each other on a screen, you can touch, kiss, or hug, as if you are physically together.
When can we expect these futuristic systems to begin enriching our lives? Wil McCarthy believes that with Moore's Law accelerating progress, these claytronic wonders could be intriguing us by decade's end.
Intel Labs Senior Researcher Jason Campbell agrees. "By the year 2020," he says, "programmable matter will be ready to deliver that bracelet-phone-computer device. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out."
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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