The concept of modular robots is not new, but with 'claytronics,' a form of 'programmable matter,' it is pushed to a new extreme. It will take billions of micron-scale 'claytronic atoms' or 'catoms' to create computer generated artifacts as if they were the real thing, such as a self-assembling synthetic doctor coming to your house via Internet -- and controlled by the real one living miles away. Or you can imagine several colleagues from around the world appearing magically in your local meeting room, as reports CIO Magazine. But don't dream too fast! This kind of technology, developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which plans to reproduce moving 3D objects in the real world, shouldn't be available before twenty years.
Let's start with some quotes from the CIO Magazine article.
Professors Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry, along with Intel Principal Investigator Jason Campbell, are building "claytronic atoms" or "catoms" -- centimeter-diameter pellets embedded with electromagnets that will enable them to connect to and move around other catoms. By controlling potentially billions of catoms as a unit, the researchers foresee creating accurate, active models of 3-D objects.
For remote conferencing, attendees could be recorded using a combination of video and motion sensors, with the collected data sent over the Internet to a waiting pile of catoms. The researchers even imagine a time when doctors could control catom-based representations of themselves for remote examinations.
But this will not happen any time soon, as wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette three months ago.
Building the one-millimeter diameter robots that Goldstein envisions is beyond current technology. And he acknowledges it could be decades before a synthetic doctor is possible, much less affordable. But it's not too soon to start thinking about it.
"It's a little like putting a man on the moon," said Todd Mowry. It's not just a problem of building tiny robots, but figuring out how to power them, to get them to stick together and to coordinate and control millions or billions of them.
In fact, the current catom models are only working in labs, and are only working in two dimensions.
As an example of the current technology of these future self-assembling structures, the picture below shows a simulation of 3D catoms finding other catoms. This picture has been extracted from this short movie (13 seconds, 2.92 MB) (Credit: CMU).
For more information about claytronics, you should visit this page at CMU about synthetic reality which contains links to other movies. Synthetic reality has significant advantages over virtual reality or augmented reality. For example, there is no need for the user to use any form of sensory augmentation such as head mounted displays or haptic feedback devices
This research has been presented at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Mobile Robot Contest and Exhibition (AAAI-05 Robot) which was held on July 9-13, 2005, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here is a link to the abstract of the presentation named "Catoms: Moving Robots Without Moving Parts."
And if you're interested by this kind of research, I really recommend this paper written in 2004, "Claytronics: A Scalable Basis For Future Robots." (PDF format, 6 pages, 244 KB)
Finally, I have a question for you: would you like to use this technology today instead of having to wait for twenty years?
Sources: Christopher Lindquist, CIO Magazine, September 15, 2005 issue; and various web sites
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