Is Programmable Matter Actually Coming Soon?

May 01, 2016 by Tim Youngblood

There are all kinds of speculations and supposed breakthroughs in the field of programmable matter, but how close are we really?

There are all kinds of speculations and supposed breakthroughs in the field of programmable matter, but how close are we really?

Whether it's the T1000 from Terminator 2, the Autobots and Decepticons, or that awesome 3D pinboard map from the X-Men movie, you've probably seen some version of programmable matter in the movies. The term "programmable matter" was coined in 1991, and we've been fascinated by the concept ever since. The eventual goal is to have microscopic machines that can rearrange their grouping, allowing them to take any form of our choosing. Back in 2010, famed physicist Michio Kaku spoke about the technology's potential in an interview with Big Think:

"If I have a clump of clay made of thousands of millions of little dots, I push a button then the charges rearrange themselves to form a statue, a car, whatever you want"

It will be a long time before we'll have anything that cool, but the field of Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robotics has produced some intriguing devices that could potentially be the precursor to our science fiction fantasies coming to fruition. The modular robotics breakthroughs that we do have today are shape-shifting tables, "4D printed" robots that can fold into different shapes, and cubes that can rearrange themselves using magnetism. If any of these technologies (or a combination of them) can be scaled down successfully, we might just get to see microscopic, programmable matter in our lifetime.

Shape Changing Furniture

The Tangible Media Group (TMG), a part of the MIT Media Lab recently unveiled the latest version of Transform at TEDxCERN. Transform is a form of dynamic furniture that can turn digital information into 3-dimensional shapes. It also responds to hand gestures in real-time using cameras and sensors. The device consists of 900 pins that move up and down, similar to the Pin Art toys many of us had as children. Thanks to Transform, we will have awesome 3D pinboard maps like the ones in X-Men and Man of Steel.

The device is currently limited by its size and the "pins" only being able to move up and down. I could see several potential applications for the technology scaling up in size, however. Imagine having a changeable environment for paintball, laser tag, RC or drone racing; or simply making mazes. I'm sure somebody will think of more productive uses for the technology than I can, but I'm just happy to geek out over the shape-changing furniture for now. You can watch Transform in action in the video below.

4D Printing

The term "4D printing" got me excited because a lot of people (myself included) think of the 4th dimension as time. Unfortunately, 4D printing, like a 5D data disc, does not involve time travel. It does, however, involve time lapse. This technology is being developed by MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, yet another MIT lab that I had not heard of until recently. The concept of 4D printing is to make 3D printed objects that can change their shape over time when exposed to various stimuli like water, light, or heat. The idea behind the technology is to put functionality into materials without the requirement of complex electronics. 

Currently, the main potential application being pursued by the Self-Assembly Lab is adaptive materials. We might soon see blankets that can become rigid when exposed to water and double as flotation devices. Or perhaps tents that put themselves up after being removed from their bag. We might even be lucky enough to see a cape that becomes rigid when exposed to electric current like Batman's someday! Although, judging by the amount of time that it takes for these materials to fold themselves in MIT's videos, I won't hold my breath. If the technology can be scaled down and the reactions are sped up, the potential applications for 4D printing could be near limitless. But with most experimental technology under development, that's a pretty big if. You can watch these self-folding materials fold themselves with the speed increased 75x in the video below.

Self Assembling Modular Cubes

Back in 2011, John Romanshin, then a senior at MIT (yes, MIT again...) proposed a design for modular robots that could rearrange themselves called M-Blocks. Two years later, Romanshin and a team of researchers developed a successful prototype. The M-Blocks are cubes that have no moving parts on the outside. The cubes move around using flywheels inside of them, which allow them to hop around using angular momentum. There are magnets on each side of the cubes that allow them to stick together in various formations. Kyle Gilpin, a member of the research team that developed M-Blocks described how they move in an interview with MIT's News Office:

"There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air. And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands."

Romanshin's team plans to upgrade these modules to be specialized to contain things like cameras, sensors, or lights. The team's eventual goal is to have M-Blocks repairing things in hard to reach places, as well as quickly building structures to eliminate the need for scaffolding. They are currently working towards programming these cubes to assemble small structures like furniture. They also hope to scale them down in the future to the molecular level, which would have near limitless applications. They compared to tiny M-Blocks to the T1000 in Terminator 2, much to my pleasure.

Romanshin's team still has a lot of work ahead of them, mainly in perfecting algorithms for the cubes to behave autonomously to make more advanced structures. The molecular scale M-Blocks are closer to science fiction than reality at this point, but the foundation has been laid for their arrival in the future. You can learn more about M-Blocks and watch them flip around in the video below.

Since all of these technologies were developed at MIT, I would imagine that their designers have collaborated in some capacity. Although each research team is taking a different approach to programmable matter, it may take their combined expertise to scale down their inventions. If successfully scaled down, the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, like many designs, down-sizing is often the biggest hurdle to overcome. In the meantime, we'll have to stick to sci-fi movies. 

1 Comment
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    DiScOrDaNt_ChAoS May 02, 2016

    This is very exciting news, although I doubt we will ever end up seeing anything such as the small robots in Big Hero 6.

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