##Abstract  Billions of microscopic robots working together in a vast network to build 3D objects that can change colour, feel solid to the touch, can be moulded and changed into almost anything. Claytronics i.e. programmable matter could change the world as we know it.

You are probably thinking what is Claytronics? Did I miss anything in my physics lectures? Well, You can be secure about that because the field is just growing (though very rapidly). So by the time you finish reading this article you will be probably thinking that the term claytronics is very well suited.

Coined at Carnegie Mellon University by Seth Goldstein and Todd C. Mowry during the last decade now it is becoming one of the most exciting research areas. It has immediately drawn attention of the industry along with the curiosity of the scientific community. This is not hard to grasp because it could have a big impact on everything that surrounds us in our daily life: from the way we use things and manufacture them to how we communicate. Most of us know how easily clay can change shapes and combining it with electronics could open a whole new frontier in material science and engineering. Hence the name Claytronics.

Figure 1: Simulation of claytronical units on 2D plan.
Figure 1: Simulation of claytronical units on 2D plan.

The challenge of claytronics is to develop tiny robots called claytronic atoms-catoms and to find how to make the catoms communicate with each other to form interchangeable objects. In analogy with atoms from which matter consists, catoms represent the smallest indivisible units of programmable matter. It is a self-contained structure that has an antenna, a processing unit, sensors, and some mechanism for adhering to other catoms.

Catoms can be programmed to form interesting dynamic shapes and configurations. They also can be used as a system for exploring the computer science of programmable matter.

Instead of having to buy a premanufactured object we would just download the design and with the help claytronics it would form into different things. One of the key challenges is figuring out how to program millions or billions of processors that are all working together. To find out how catoms can work together, researchers have created computer simulation so the catoms can interact with the forces of physics in a virtual environment.

Figure 2: Prototypes of claytronical units.
Figure 2: Prototypes of claytronical units.

This is something Intel Corporation is interested in. Intel researchers are working on how to program catoms to assemble themselves. This research project has set its goals on two principal pathways. Firstly to engineer, design, and test of modular robotic catoms prototypes that will be suitable for manufacturing in larger quantities. Secondly on creation of programming languages, and software tools to control ensembles of millions of catoms. Under simulated force of gravity catoms arrange themselves in a shape where they stick together. They have built experimental catoms that work on a flat plane, to conquer the challenges moving in a 2D world, before they move into third dimension. The aim was to build larger units that would verify some of the main principles behind claytronics that are essential to create fully functioning devices. The initial step was to put electromagnets around cylinders Figure 1. When the right magnets are activated due to mutual attraction different units communicate with each other by for example moving around. This might sound as a simple task but it took 3 years of research to achieve this. These small units move without any moving parts without no self-contained power source. Other achievements of course is creating a new programming paradigm. The magnets will probably not work very well on a microscopic scale. That is why other methods are needed for the catoms to stick together and move (e.g. via electrostatic attraction). In order for claytronics to work, the catoms have to be much smaller than the available models today (submillimeter size in fact). There are several ways to shrink them. Tiny spherical machines can be printed like integrated circuits forming themselves into spheres. It sounds complicated but at the end of a day there is some sort of a natural simplicity to it. The units are small, all very similar to each other, they are doing the same thing. That is the system is made of simple parts. Making these tiny spheres has already happened at the Airforce Research Lab in the US. Claytronical objects will be able to form complex structures and perform elaborate tasks that may seem impossible with today’s technologies. In order to construct complex structures these minirobots are needed in large numbers and tiny scale. With this ability your furniture will be able to do double duty adapting to your needs. With claytronics the art on your walls or for example statues could be changed depending on your mood and needs. Cellphone could turn into laptop and when the work is done, back into cellphone. But its most amazing application is how claytronics could revolutionise human to human communication even if people are in the same room. To build a moving, sensing, and at the same time colour changing copy of human out of claytronical units would make every chat a face-to-face meeting. This is the the future 3D Video conferencing.

Many fields, and robotics is not an exception. managed to make their way out from science fiction in last 4 to 5 decades. Claytronics is an exception as it never existed in science fiction as a science or technology until recent years.

Figure 3: One of the many possible applications of claytronics.
Figure 3: One of the many possible applications of claytronics.

Real products are still years away but researchers have been looking at ways to make an object of any imaginable shape, and changes in the technology trends prepares everybody for tomorrow. While investigating claytronics the Carnegie Mellon-Intel researchers have created two new programming languages, namely Meld and Locally Distributed Predicates (LDP). Meld is a logic programming language originally designed for programming overlay networks. By using logic programming, the code for an ensemble of robots can be written from a global perspective, enabling the programmer to concentrate on the overall performance of the claytronics rather than writing individual instructions for every one of the thousands to millions of catoms in the ensemble. This dramatically simplifies the thought process for programming the movement of a claytronics. On the other hand LDP is a reactive programming language which has been used to trigger debugging in the earlier research. With the addition of language that enables the programmer to build operations in the development of the shape of the claytronic object, it can be used to analyze the distributed local conditions. Claytronics will revolutionize the design and engineering of computing, telecommunication, human-computer interfaces, entertainment, hardware systems etc. It will offer a more realistic sense to communication over long distance. Similar to how audio and video provide aural and visual stimulation, this provides an aural, visual and physical sensation. Hence an idea of the creation of a new mediatype, which is called pario is proposed. Seth Goldstein expressed this in the following way:

We are neither transporting the original object nor creating an exact replica: instead, the idea is to create a physical artefact that is a ‘good enough’ reproduction of the shape, appearance, and motion of the original object - one that our senses will accept as being real.

A user will be able to hear, see and touch the one communicating with them in a realistic manner. So the countdown for the next tech revolution has started and we all are witnesses.

##References 1. Kirby, B., Goldstein, S. C., Mowry, T., Aksak, B., Hoburg, J. (2005). Catoms: Moving Robots Without Moving Parts. AAAI (Robot Exhibition), 1730-1731. 2. Goldstein, S. C., Campbell, J. D., Mowry, T. C. (2005). Programmable Matter. Computer, 38(6), 99-101. 3. Kirby, B., Goldstein, S. C., Mowry, T., Aksak, B., Hoburg, J. (2007). A Modular robotic System Using Magnetic Force Effectors. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS ‘07). 4. http://athuls0708.wordpress.com 5. http://claytronicatom.blogspot.dk