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Programmable matter can be morphed into nearly any object desired

Imagine a bracelet or watch that changes into something else when you take it off. Perhaps it becomes a cell phone, or laptop 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 programmable matter.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Intel Research Center, and other science labs are just a few years away from bringing to life programmable matter material, which can morph nearly any object imagined into another object with different size, shape, and function.

The building units that make this amazing material possible include tiny computers, or micro robots called Claytronic 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 individual component becomes part of a computerized network of objects and identifies itself based on function; for example, a part might see itself as a finger. On command, millions of catoms working together would fall in place to create, in this case, a replicate, or copy of a live human being.

Scientist, author and entrepreneur Wil McCarthy, in a recent presentation to our Las Vegas Futurists group, claimed in his ground-breaking book Hacking Matter, that this amazing science will "touch on nearly every aspect of our lives, from clothing to transportation to communications to housing."

The flexibility that will arise from being able 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.

At a recent Intel Developer Forum, Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner told the group that this futuristic idea could be thought of as "the ultimate form of digital printing. You literally could design an object of any imaginable shape and simply hit the print command and the matter would take that shape."

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.

Programmable materials will save wear and tear on furniture. A dinner table could be changed to a poker table for a party, and then into a bed at night. Think of the household savings this would generate. A single room could serve as both living room and bedroom by morphing furniture items 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 morphing robot in Terminator2). Another far out concept for this future-thinking organization is programmable skin that could change racial features on command.

Here's a wild idea – a telepresence system that copies people on both ends of a phone call. The copies would mimic exact looks and movements of the person they replicate. At each end of the line, a real person interacts with a replica of the person on the other end. Think Skype; but instead of viewing each other on a screen, you can touch, shake hands, or hug and kiss, live, as if you are both in the same room.

When can we expect programmable materials to begin enriching our lives? Wil McCarthy believes that with Moore's Law directing progress, these Claytronic wonders could be intriguing us in about 10 years.

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."

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