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Summary:

We’ve seen 3-D printers that create previously designed objects, but what about smart grains of sand that self-replicate things? It’s not science fiction: MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is demonstrating intelligent, 1 cm cubes that can assume any shape through magnetism principles and algorithms.

robot-pebbles

We’ve already seen 3-D printers that create previously designed objects, but what about smart grains of sand that self-replicate things? It’s not science fiction, according to MIT. The Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is demonstrating intelligent, one centimeter cubes that can assume any shape through magnetism principles and algorithms.

Here’s how the small blocks accomplish this, according to the MIT blog post:

“Unlike many other approaches to reconfigurable robots, smart sand uses a subtractive method, akin to stone carving, rather than an additive method, akin to snapping LEGO blocks together. A heap of smart sand would be analogous to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with.

The individual grains would pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object; the grains not necessary to build that object would simply fall away. When the object had served its purpose, it would be returned to the heap. Its constituent grains would detach from each other, becoming free to participate in the formation of a new shape.”

It’s going to take time, money and research to further shrink the concept cubes into sand-sized grains, but the technological concepts– which turns tiny magnets in the cubes on or off as needed during the process — is sound.

And computing power is increasing at the same time that chips are getting smaller, which certainly helps the project’s long-term goals. It’s likely that size is the bigger issue as the algorithms used to replicate objects aren’t actually too complex as shown in this video that I found through ZDNet.

  1. Armand Konan Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    This is like Start Trek Replicator machine… Hang on Trekkies, we’re getting there slowly but surely :-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replicator_(Star_Trek)

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  2. alain smithee Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    Quick – call General Jack O’Neill & break out the FN P90′s – The Replicators from Stargate SG1 are coming!

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    1. OMG – We are doomed… Thor isn’t real, We are all dooommedd!

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    2. OMG – We are all Dooommed! Thor isn’t real. He can’t save us! Call Daniel Jackson!

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  3. Star Trek replicators convert pure energy into atoms and molecules in the requested configuration, which is very different from what this “smart sand” is doing. This is a lot more like how the T-1000 (liquid metal) Terminator works, which is composed of billions of cooperating nanites that work together to form shapes, process information, and move.

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