You meet the end of a long day in his apartment at the beginning 2040-ies. You did a good job and decide to take a break. “Time!”, you say. A home that meets your desires. Table breaks apart into hundreds of tiny pieces that crawl under you and take the form of the chair. The computer screen behind which you were working, spread out along the wall and turns into a flat projection. You relax in the chair and after a few seconds already watching a movie in the home theater, all in the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
It’s a dream working on the “programmable matter”.
In his recent book about artificial intelligence Max Tegmark distinguishes between three levels of computational complexity of organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; it hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of bacteria is encoded in her DNA; anything new she can not learn.
Life 2.0 is the life of people in the spectrum. We are kind of stuck in their equipment, but can change its own program, making a choice in the learning process. For example, you can learn Spanish instead of Italian. Like the space management on a smartphone, the hardware of the brain allows you to load a specific set of “paketov”, but in theory you can learn new behavior without changing the underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 is moving away from this: things can change on the hardware and the software with feedback. Tegmark sees this as a true artificial intelligence — as soon as he learns to change their base code, there will be an explosion of intelligence. Perhaps because of CRISPR and other gene editing techniques, we will be able to use their own “software” to change their own “devices”.
Programmable matter takes this analogy to objects of our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a table? What if instead of a Swiss army knife with dozens of tools, you would have got the only tool that “knew” would become like any other tool for your needs, on your team? In the crowded cities of the future in place of the houses would come of apartments, which would be one room. This would save space and resources.
In any case, dreams are just that.
Because to create and produce individual device so hard, it is easy to assume that the above things can turn into many different objects will be extremely difficult. Professor Skylar Tibbits of mit calls it 4D printing. His research group has identified the key ingredients for self-Assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions, from which you can recreate almost any material and process. Self-Assembly promises breakthroughs in many fields, from biology to materials science, Informatics, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, art and more. Even in cooking and space exploration.
These projects are still in their infancy, but the “laboratory self-Assembly” (Self-Assembly Lab) Tibbits and others are already laying the foundations for their development.
For example, there is a project on the self-Assembly of cellular phones. Come to mind terrible factories which around the clock independently collected mobile phones from 3D-printed parts without requiring human intervention or robots. Hardly these phones will fly off the shelves like hotcakes, but the cost of production in the framework of this project will be negligible. This proof of concept.
One of the major obstacles that must be overcome when creating programmable matter, is the selection of the correct fundamental units. Important balance. To create small details need not very large “bricks”, otherwise the final design will look lumpy. Because of this building blocks can be useless for some applications — for example, if you want to create the tools for fine manipulation. With large pieces it may be difficult to simulate a number of textures. On the other hand, if the parts are too small, you may experience other problems.
Imagine a setting in which each detail represented by a small robot. The robot must have its own power source and brain, or at least some kind of signal generator and signal processor all in one compact unit. You can imagine that a number of textures and tension can be modeled by changing the strength of the “connection” between separate units — the table should be slightly firmer than your bed.
The first steps in this direction were made by those who are developing modular robots. A lot of groups of scientists working on this, including MIT, Lausanne and the University of Brussels.
In the newest configuration of individual robot acts as a Central Department, making decisions (you may call it the brain), and additional robots can join the need for this Central division, if you want to change the form and structure of the overall system. Now your system only has ten separate units, but, again, this is a proof of concept that modular robots can be controlled; perhaps in the future a small version of the same system will form the basis of Material components for 3.0.
It is easy to imagine how, with the help of machine learning algorithms, these swarms of robots learn to overcome obstacles and respond to environmental change faster and easier individual robot. For example, the robot system could quickly adjust to the bullet passed without damage, thus forming the immune system.
Speaking of robotics, form the perfect robot was the subject of much debate. One of the recent major robotics competitions held by DARPA, Robotics Challenge was won by the robot that can adapt. He won the famous Boston Dynamics ATLAS humanoid simple addition of the wheel, which allowed him to skate.
Instead of building robots in human form (although sometimes it’s useful), you can allow them to evolve, to develop, to find the perfect shape for the task. This will be particularly useful in case of disaster, when dear robots will replace people, but should be ready to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
Many futurists imagine the ability to create tiny nanobots capable of creating anything from raw materials. But it’s not necessary. Programmable matter that can respond and react to the environment, will be useful in all industrial applications. Imagine a pipe, which may strengthen or weaken the need to either change the direction of flow on command. Any fabric that can become more or less dense depending on the conditions.
We are still far from the days when our beds will be able to transform into bikes. Perhaps the traditional low-tech solution, as is often the case, it will be much more practical and economical. But as the man tries to shove a chip in every inedible object, inanimate objects will become a bit more animated with each passing year.