Friday, March 22, 2013

To Program Matter

If you had the ability to "program" matter, what would you create?

Surprisingly, several research projects exist to program matter as if it were an extension of a computer program. Although the hardware and software have a ways to go before they can match up with some of the visionary videos I've seen, it's a field that is growing right alongside research into nanotechnology. A couple of different names have appeared over the last few years in an attempt to define this idea: claytronics and programmable matter.

According to the Carnegie Mellon University website, claytronics "combines modular robotics, systems nanotechnology and computer science to create the dynamic, 3-Dimensional display of electronic information." Wikipedia describes programmable matter as matter having "the ability to change its physical properties (shape, density, moduli, conductivity, optical properties, etc.) in a programmable fashion, based upon user input or autonomous sensing."

Lots of science fiction shows and movies over the years have given us hints of what this might look like in the future. For example, the T-1000 in the movie Terminator 2 might be a good illustration of this idea in action. Although that particular movie used lots of special effects, I predict there will come a day when even the field of special effects partially merge with research in the field programmable matter.

Special effects in movies, games, and animation typically requires the manipulation of lots of information (presented in the form of graphics). What viewers/players don't see is all the mathematics that occurs in the computers or render farms that generate these images. As technology continues to evolve, the effects are becoming more realistic over time and tend to involve a greater number of calculations. These calculations involve lots of physics and math. Effects such as hair, skin, human motion, creatures, vehicles and even landscapes are taking on greater realism as a result.

Looking ahead, though, many of the videos I've seen on this topic address great ideas such as using programmable matter to create tangible 3-D models that could be used in board meetings or presentations. Some have even gone so far as to show the models changing form instantly in response to the presenter's controller as a means of illustrating a product prototype.

That's creative and practical, but it's doubtful the innovation would stop there. Imagine owning a vehicle that could change form or color on command (cloaking, anyone?). I saw a video that demonstrated what this might look like, along with furniture that could change form. Perhaps one day it will be possible to have clothing change form instead of having it wear out and be tossed in the garbage.

It won't stop there, however. Some will take their newfound programming ability to dangerous places and bring about situations no one is equipped to face. Will discussions occur in advance of such developments in order to try and foresee and prepare for those days which are probably fast approaching? Maybe. Some say that's what science fiction is really all about.

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