By Akshay Asija
Conventional computers have always been machines that stimulate our senses, presenting us with information in a form that our eyes and ears can take in and interpret. The experience provided by such machines, however, still feels rather artificial. Displays and audio equipment have improved steadily over the years but there is still not much of a human feel to such devices. However, the human touch may soon be introduced into the world of electronics by ‘Claytronics,’ a new paradigm in computing.
Back in 1964, Polish author Stanisław Lem wrote of intelligent nano-particles in his science fiction novel The Invincible. Fifty years later, scientists and futurists are optimistic that we are close to the day when such programmable matter, or claytronics, will change human-machine interactions for good. At present though, there are many hassles involved with implementing claytronics effectively. A collaboration between the scientists at the Carnegie Mellon University and those at Intel Research Labs, Pittsburgh aims to work around these challenges and eventually hope to realise the vision of having programmable matter.
Working of Claytronics
Claytronics is an abstract concept that exists at the intersection of nanotechnology, computer science and robotics. It is concerned with the development of autonomous robots, the size of a few nanometres. These nano-robots, called Claytronic atoms or Catoms, can interact with each other to form three dimensional, dynamic objects that cannot only be seen and heard but also touched and felt.
To bring the concept of such movable and programmable objects to life, all the Claytronic atoms in a given object first form a network of sub-objects based on the different activities the object is to carry out. Since each catom is programmable, the resulting three-dimensional object can be modified to look and behave like a completely different object. A possible—though frightening—application of claytronics would be a humanoid reconfigurable robot like the one in Terminator 2. However, such impressive results are still a long way off, since scientists working on the Claytronics project are only now working out how to make the many different components work and move around in synchronization.
Catom development so far
The first major breakthrough in Claytronics came in 2005 when the Carnegie Mellon-Intel team was partially successful in creating catom based nano-robots that interacted with one another by means of electromagnetic induction and could make small movements. At present, catoms are only capable of two-dimensional motion. However, no existing implementation of claytronics is usable for any practical applications.
Existing prototypes have sizes as small as dice to as large as helium balloons. At present, catoms are capable of forming cylindrical objects with a diameter of about 4 cm. Such cylinders require about 20 to 25 electromagnets to maintain their shape. These prototypes can reconfigure themselves relatively quickly by means of rapid detachment and attachment of the magnets.
The future of Claytronics
Besides developing robots that move in all possible directions, researchers want to simplify the manufacturing process. They also aim to create catoms capable of emitting light of varying colours and intensities. A critical issue being faced by those working on the claytronics projects is that the size of the batteries required to power the miniature robots is larger than the robots themselves. To work out this issue, researchers are engaged in developing charging techniques that allow for the charging of catoms by means of inter-catom contact, with a single battery being connected to an entire mass of catoms. Special nanometre fibres are also being developed to serve as connectors for catoms, which might solve the problem of weak adhesion between individual nano-robots.
Claytronics: A reality soon?
To provide for efficient communication between catoms in a claytronics object, the researchers and engineers have developed two completely new programming languages: Meld and Locally Distributed Predicates (LDP). Meld is used to describe the behaviour of an entire claytronic object, creating a layer of abstraction between the programmer and the working components. LDP, on the other hand, allows the programmer to check for specific issues in the object or a part of the object, even down to the level of a single catom. Besides these, a good implementation of claytronics requires advanced precision engineering to produce the catoms.
Development in claytronics has seen a quickening of pace in the last few years, with researchers in the Carnegie-Mellon and Intel team claiming that the technology will go mainstream within a couple of years. Only time will tell how far away we are from the full-scale adoption of claytronic technologies.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay