Intel says shape-shifting robots closer to reality

Researchers use distributed computing and robots to create programmable matter

Imagine a day when you can make your cell phone smaller to fit more comfortably in your pocket, then make it larger so you can text more easily.

Now, imagine that you could make your cell phone take the shape of a headset when you want to talk on it or re-shape it like a bracelet so you can wear it while jogging.

Those scenarios could be real in the not-so-distant future, according to researchers at both Intel and Carnegie Mellon University.

Scientists are using distributed computing and robotics to make shape-shifting a reality. In essence, they're working to take millions of millimeter-sized robots and enable them, through software and electromagnetic forces, to take on various shapes and sizes.

Nearly two years ago, Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told Computerworld that he was working with a team of scientists at Intel and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab to create programmable matter. This week, Goldstein and Jason Campbell, a senior staff research scientist at Intel's research lab in Pittsburgh, say they now are able to demonstrate that the physics they've been talking about are real.

"It's been pretty hard but we've made a lot of progress," said Campbell. "Optimistically, we could see this in three to five years. It will take us longer.... We're not there yet, but we see a path."

The programmable matter is called claytronics and the tiny robots are called catoms. Each catom will have its own processor. Think of each catom as a tiny robot or computer that has computational power, memory and the ability to store and share power.

Expanding on the idea of distributed computing, researchers are working to program millions of catoms to work together, much like a swarm of bees or a flock of birds.

Goldstein explained that researchers hope to write one program that will engage the entire system of catoms, instead of trying to write code for each one. Developers are focused on creating software that will focus on a pattern or overall movement of the system of tiny robots. Then each robot will be smart enough to detect its own place in the pattern and respond accordingly. If, for instance, a catom, or robot, detects that it has only one other catom beside it, it will know that it's on an end and can act according to what the end piece should be doing.

"Generally, people learn how to program a single machine," said Goldstein. "Think of the ensemble as the system."

Part of the scientists' research is creating new programming languages, algorithms and debugging tools to get these massive systems to work together.

And the shape-shifting efforts go beyond being able to change the size or shape of your cell phone. Goldstein explained previously that it could mean being able to better use the space in a small apartment by being able to change a dinner table into a poker table for a party and then into a bed at the end of the day.

It also could mean that instead of looking at images on a screen, gamers could have animated figures running around their houses. And instead of calling your co-worker to discuss something, a 3D facsimile of him or her could sit in your office and discuss a new project or the next year's budget.

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