Researchers at Intel and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) say distributed computing and robotics could be used to make shape-shifting electronics a reality in the not-too-distant future.
The researchers are working to take millions of millimeter-sized robots and enable them to use software and electromagnetic forces to change into a variety of shapes and sizes. CMU professor Seth Goldstein and Intel researcher Jason Campbell recently reported that they are able to demonstrate the physics needed to create programmable matter. "It's been pretty hard but we've made a lot of progress," Campbell says. "Optimistically, we could see this in three to five years."
Programmable matter is called claytronics, and the millimeter-sized robots are called catoms. Each catom would contain its own processor, and would essentially be a tiny robot or computer with computational power, memory, and the ability to store and share power. The goal is to program millions of catoms to work together by developing software that focuses on a pattern or overall movement of the entire system of tiny robots. Each robot will be smart enough to detect its own place in the pattern and respond accordingly. Part of the research effort involves developing new programming languages, algorithms, and debugging tools to get these systems to work together.
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