It is now two years since Intel has announced its futuristic ideas on creating objects out of … catoms. These are very tiny computers that can interact one another and their surface is smooth and shaped like a marble.
The idea is that the surface of these tiny marbles can be electrostatically charged so that two marbles can stick together or repel one another. Localize the charge on the sphere surface and you can create basically any object.
Carnegie Mellon University has taken up the challenge and it is progressing to a goal that probably can be reached within this decade in certain sectors but will likely require twenty more years (my take) to have a real impact. They got a name for this science: claytronics, basically mixing together the clay (as in the Genesis, Adam was made of clay…) and the electronics. And “catoms” of course stands for claytronics atoms.
To me this research represents a way to approach nanotech products without having to go through the nanotech complex assembly. You have nanotech in the production of the “catoms” but this is something we already know how to do, since it is basically about developing chips. The extra feature here is the embedding sphere and its capability to have localized charges activated. This is not a trivial issue and ties in with the energy consumption. You do not want your new toy to melt away because the millions of catons it is made of lose the grip on one another.
Clearly there is still a long way to go before having something that is marketable and usable but still it makes me think about the opportunities. First of all you are not going to have an object embedding a computer, you have millions, may be billions of them with a collective processing power that is just beyond imagination.
They will act as a real ecosystem, since you will need at any instant to have them all in equilibrium, but at the same time this equilibrium can change over time (upon command) so that your catoms based phone that perfectly fit your pocket will get thinner and wider in your hand and even larger on your desk providing you with more screen real estate. And what about fusing together two objects if you are lacking a few million catoms? Or for that matter chipping a few millions away from your pocket to get an instant pair of glasses with embedded translation capabilities.
Yes I know, we are on the edges of science fiction, but we are standing on that edge from the science part, not from the fiction! And, besides, you can get the inside news on catoms direclty from Wikipedia.