Intel: Programmable matter takes shape

Shape-shifting technology will evolve within the next five to 10 years, the chip giant's chief technology officer Justin Rattner says.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--Mobile phones in future could be thumb-sized in pockets, and in practically an instant, be effortlessly transformed into PDA-sized devices to send e-mail.

In the final keynote of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) Thursday, Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, shed some light on work around programmable matter, as he teased the audience with what Intel believes would apply as technology in the next four decades.

The idea of programmable matter, he explained, revolves around tiny glass spheres with processing power and photovoltaic for generating electricity to run the tiny circuitry. These particles called catoms would move relative to one another via electrostatic.

The concept of programmable matter can be thought of as "the ultimate form of digital printing", Rattner told ZDNet Asia Wednesday in an interview. "You literally could make an object of any imaginable shape, or design an object of any imaginable shape, and simply 'hit the print command' and the matter would take that shape.

"[The late] Arthur C. Clarke (famed British author and inventor) had this wonderful quote: 'Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.' And that's what programmable matter is--it's a technology so advanced it might as well be magic," he said.

Wireless power transmission demo by Intel

This particular technology, though, is far from being an illusion--Intel's scientists and engineers, who have been laboring in exploratory research, have come up with early prototypes at the centimeter and millimeter scale, according to Rattner, who is also senior fellow and vice president of the corporate technology group at Intel. "And we'll go from millimeters to microns, I guess, some time over the next five to 10 years."

Jason Campbell, senior staff research scientist at Intel Research, gave a broad idea during Rattner's Thursday keynote just how disruptive the technology could be to users' daily lives--by replacing the electronic devices that people carry. Size is no longer an issue--the device can take the form of a wristband or thumb-drive, and stretched to a larger size to answer a call or send off an e-mail.

Programmable matter can be used in healthcare, to provide 3D visualization, said Campbell. A video screened during the keynote showed programmable matter also being used in automobile design, where a group of executives at a meeting tweaked a car model, such as by pulling it to make it longer.

Campbell shared that when he first started working on programmable matter, he had the impression that it would take several decades to fulfill. But with the progress made, he is now convinced that it could be realized in "a couple more years".

But, Rattner pointed out, there is still a lot of work to be done. There are "all sorts" of design and mechanical questions, such as the amount of energy it takes for the particles to move relative to one another.

"The programming questions are even more profound; people are struggling to program four cores or eight cores, and when Larrabee comes out, several dozens of cores," he added. "How would you program a million or a billion pieces of programmable matter? What does programming even mean?"

Wirelessly transmit power
In his keynote, Rattner also pointed out that transmitting power should be as easy as transmitting information, following which he showed a set-up from out of Intel's research lab in Seattle, of two copper coils within about two feet of each other. One coil acted as the power transmitter, causing the bulb on the other coil to light up through magnetic coupling.

Research lab intern Alanson Sample, who presented the demo, said the around 60-watt transfer had an efficiency of 75 percent.

Rattner said the next step would be to miniaturize the coils, so that a demo of a laptop being charged wirelessly can be shown. "Wouldn't it be nice some time in the future, if we can get rid of the cords…you wouldn’t have a battery in the sense you do now.

"As you move into these fields, you'd very quickly power up your device--literally in a matter of seconds--and it'd be good for several hours of operation with the idea that some time in the next several hours you'd find another wireless power source," said Rattner. "They'll be built into the tables or into the walls, and they will just keep you going."

Vivian Yeo of ZDNet Asia reported from the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, California.

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