The programmable matter revolution

Originally published 2003 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


There's a technological revolution coming that promises to make pretty much every gadget we use today look like ancient history. I'm not even talking Bronze Age, people.

Ultra-small-scale technology is bringing new aspects of molecular and sub-molecular weirdness into the macroscopic world. We're already surrounded by devices that rely for their basic operation on ultra-small-scale effects - transistors, LEDs, LCD monitors - but this is just the start. Soon, we'll be dealing with things that don't just have little specks of photon-tunnelling, electron-hole-shuffling quantum magic inside. Instead, the whole darn object will behave in a way that'll leave you wondering, vaguely, whether you ought to burn yourself for being a witch.

This represents a very big jump beyond what we currently know as "advanced materials". Sure, we've currently got foil with tiny holes in it that passes much more light than can fit through the holes, and we've got ultra-strong amorphous alloys, and have even cracked the problem of how to make silk, though not commercially yet. Most "advanced materials", though, are old concepts applied to newer passive substances - the most common "composite" materials are fibre-filled substances, like fibreglass and carbon fibre embedded in resin, and that idea's been around ever since someone discovered how useful mud mixed with straw was.

By the manipulation of quantum dots - "artificial atoms" that confine an atom's-worth of electrons in a rather larger area - we can create materials that have some of the properties of real elements. Change the electron population in the quantum dots - probably by the application of electricity, but maybe optically or via some other means - and you change the material.

Exactly how such "programmable matter" will be able to change depends on many variables whose values we don't quite know yet. You certainly shouldn't hold your breath for an anonymous brick of stuff that can turn into fried chicken, bone china or 24 karat gold depending on the voltage applied to its ends. Expect something more impressive than piezoelectricity, but not that much more impressive; quantum dots can only exist in a matrix of some other substance, which will strongly colour the behaviour of the final material.

But materials with unheard-of toughness, hardness, conductivity and insulation abilities, and the ability to transition from one mode to another when needed, are a lot more feasible. So you can have that sci-fi staple, the "leather" jacket that turns into high carbon steel when someone shoots you, or you fall off your motorcycle.

And yes, all those trippy super-heavy elements they talk about in Star Trek can be simulated this way, too, without the inconvenience of minuscule half-lives and lots of hard radiation.

Quantum dot fabrication is one of the more feasible kinds of nanotechnology - technology that deals with things that have features on the billionth-of-a-metre scale. Nanotech tends to make geeks think of tiny nanobots to scrub fatty deposits out of arteries (Discovery Channel version) or turn people into Borg (Sci-Fi Channel version), or horrifying tides of self-replicating grey goo eating the whole planet.

Long before anything like that happens, though (especially the grey goo thing - cars haven't shown much of a tendency to reproduce themselves yet, and nanobots face the same problem) we'll be using nanoscale tech to make bulk materials.

Substances with low-level structure that's controllable, one way or another, could mean magic morphable materials.

This won't mean you'll be able to buy a grey blob that can flow out into a couch, or flatten into a video screen, or turn part of itself into a steak dinner - though nanoscale assembly may give rise to general purpose nanofactories that can turn out any of those things.

If all you want is morphable furniture, though, that's plausible. A hybrid nano/micro polymer-machine, Silly Putty with muscles, which can flow and foam out into whatever shape and, within limits, size, you want.

Presto - the first really good sofa-bed.

Morphable materials would have a zillion other applications, of course, and many of them wouldn't be visible. Like composite materials today, morphable materials will start out being incorporated into components of more traditional devices, making things more able to do whatever it is that they do, without transforming the basic nature of the thing any more than carbon fibre's transformed the basic nature of the tennis racquet.

Beyond that stage, though, really dramatic changes could happen.

Not least of them would be a vast reduction in the amount of space people need to live a luxurious life.

Think of all the five to ten room houses out there that only have one to three rooms in use at any given moment. Now think of how much space you'd save if not only your furniture, but various other things, could change shape at will.

Dining room, TV room, bedroom; one room. No more paying for rooms that aren't doing anything.

If you want separate areas for separate people, you'll be able to fit a lot more stuff into a lot less space. A bed could turn into a desk. A workbench could roll itself up into a blob, and then unroll when needed, replacing all the tools in the right place.

And, given more advanced morpho-stuff: Want a picture on the wall? Just dial one up. Make the whole wall a picture, if you like. Make it a TV. Make it transparent, turning one side into a camera array and the other into a one-way viewscreen.

Heck - amalgamate the kitchen and the bathroom!

Now, morphing your computer chair into a toilet might not be quite the technological advance you're looking for. Well, not the one that you'll admit to wanting, anyway.

If you can get past the "ick" factor, though, it'd be a Very Good Thing for the world if we gained the ability to have waste never leave the house, but rather be nanotechnologically reprocessed into raw material for the next piece of furniture, suit of clothes or dinner.

Primitive programmable matter already exists. The usually cited example is light-sensitive sunglass lenses, but liquid crystal displays count as well, and there are more than a few companies and, of course, universities dancing around in the grey area between dumb and smart materials.

Far-future sci-fi likes to talk about humans losing individual identities. It would appear that a long time before anything like that can happen, objects may lose identity, as they become able to be whatever we need at that moment.

And then, the kids may well have a hard time seeing the big difference between a modern PC and a stone axe.

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