Shape-shifting robot swarms will create 3D replicas

Clinging mini robots will assume any shape -- humans, furniture or game characters

By 2020, instead of calling your boss and discussing a new project over the phone, a three-dimensional image of him simply will sit in your office and have a virtual discussion with you.

Want to play your favorite video game? Instead of watching characters move around on a computer monitor, why not let them run around your house?

This is the vision of the future for Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. For the past four years, Goldstein has been working to create swarms of tiny robots that can be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to create various forms. He explained that the miniscule robots, which are about the size of a grain of sand, basically are shape shifters -clinging together to form various 3D creations.

"The research path from here to having millions of these working together to form a 3D replica of you in my office is going to be a long and circuitous route," Goldstein told Computerworld. "It's programmable matter. We want them to shift shape. As you're moving your hand in your actual office, your 3D replica has to move its hand, too. It's not just a picture. The idea is to bring physicality into reality."

Goldstein calls the programmable matter claytronics. The tiny robots are catoms, and the 3D replicas are parios. And it's not all out of a sci-fi movie. Goldstein said. Working hand-in-hand with Intel, the research team has made a lot of progress in getting the catoms to bond together and even share power.

Think of each catom as a tiny robot or computer that has computational power, memory and the ability to store and share power. Right now, each catom has 24 electromagnets around its circumference. Based on whether the electromagnets are powered on or off decides how the catoms are moved into position with each other.

"They talk to each other all the time and move together or apart," explained Goldstein. "In the long term, we'll use electrostatic forces. We'll create it by putting a voltage on them."

When will these shape-shifting robots leave the lab and enter our lives? It's difficult to put an exact timeline on it, but Goldstein said he expects to see them functioning in the real world within five to 25 years.

"It will have a massive change on the way we do everything," he added. "You'll essentially be able to sit in the same room with somebody who's not there... The 3D model would pick up the voice and a real-time image of the person its replicating over the Internet. It's not so far fetched. MP3s and movies are all encoded strings of bits today. Instead of having speakers and microphones, we'll have claytronics."

And Goldstein sees claytronics as more than making the telephone obsolete.

He said a claytronic antenna in a cell phone would be helpful. The functionality of the antenna is based on its shape. A claytronic antenna would change its shape based on the environment the phone is in or the way it's sending and receiving information.

And what about the person trying to live comfortably in a small studio apartment? "Instead of cluttering it up with a table, chair and a bed, when you're having friends over for dinner, you create a dinner table," said Goldstein. "When you're playing poker, it's a poker table. When you want to go to bed, it's a bed."

One of the tricks in making this programmable matter a reality lies in the actual programming.

"The real research challenge is how to program them," noted Goldstein. "How do you have thousands of cooperating but distributed processors work together? These catoms are basically computers. The best thing is to have a 3D model of what you want it to be so you can download the design for a table and the claytronics would follow some plan to form into that table."

And figuring out how to program claytronics ultimately will lead to a new understanding of programming distributed systems. Goldstein said a major part of their research is creating new programming languages, algorithms and debugging tools to get these massive systems to work together.

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