Programmable Matter

As you work on your construction project, you only need one tool, which changes shape to meet your needs: as a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver, a wrench, or just about anything else. As crazy as that sounds, it might be reality someday, due to a class of technology called programmable matter.

Programmable matter is still in it’s infancy as a technology, splintered into a dozen different capabilities. We don’t have shape-changing tools yet. Nevertheless, serious research is being done on the subject and, more than that, serious progress is being made. Sheets of self-folding paper have been making themselves into little origami planes and boats since 2010, and these smart cubes, while still big and bulky, are capable of moving on their own without limbs in order to build larger structures. Just last year (2018) scientists produced a hydrogel that could move and flex like a living creature on command, deforming to form a pre-programmed shape.

The ultimate goal of programmable matter is something called claytronics, which is basically programmable matter that is so fine-grained that the individual parts are nanomachines. You know the T-1000, the Terminator from the second movie, that could melt and reform as anything it wanted? That’s essentially claytronics, except for the part where it hunts you down and kills you. Instead, this wonder-material would be yours to command, however you liked.

Claytronic wheels on cars need never get a flat or be replaced, claytronic furniture can make room for another person to sit, claytronic toys can be programmed to turn into a dozen different types of toys, and walk themselves back into the toy box when playtime is over. The applications are literally only limited by your imagination. More mundanely, claytronics would make manufacturing basically anything a snap, could eliminate the need for repairs, could make sure that you always have the right tool at hand no matter the situation.

How far away is this morphing wonderland? Probably a significant ways, on the order of decades. And yet, it does seem to be only a matter of time. Everything we know about physics suggests that programmable matter of many kinds is not just entirely possible, but inevitable if research coninues at the current pace.

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