Programmable materials are a clever matter. Any material that can change state, shape or optical properties also has the power to change the world around it.
In 2013 the programmable materials pioneer Skylar Tibbits presented a TED talk on the birth of 4D printing. While 3D printing may be making waves in industries from house building to pharmaceuticals, or in the home in craft design or for repairs and replacement parts, 4D printing is a whole new movement.
4D printing is the idea of taking multi-material 3D printing to create an object that then transforms over time (the fourth dimension) into an entirely different shape or structure. This type of robotic building can be pre-designed with software and used for extremely tiny, or real world, objects.
There is an unprecedented revolution happening at the biological and nano-scale, says Tibbits, and this is giving us the ability to programme physical and biological materials to change shape, properties and to compute. Tibbits and engineers like him use a programme called caDNano to design nanorobots or drug delivery systems, using DNA to self assemble.
Unsurprisingly they are not content with working at such small scales and want to expand it out to large scale construction, manufacturing and infrastructure projects such as fixing pipelines. Working with the design software company Autodesk, a project to create a self assembling 3D object from individual and unconnected parts was conceived and built. It used random movement to successfully assemble a regular 3D model. The team then looked at a larger version that could create furniture inside a kind of tombola spinner.
Robots Without Robots
Google’s Solve For X Moonshot programme also has a Tibbits-led partnership looking at taking out the complicated, failure-prone motors and sensors from robotics. What this means is creating what the group calls ‘true material robotics’, taking away the need for actuators, sensors, batteries and other complicated systems.
Having watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and before that the Alfonso Cuaron epic Gravity it makes sense that this type of self building technology could be useful to make robots or automatic buildings in extreme environments, because it has few parts to fail or maintain and needs no human intervention to build. There is no reason for humans to be in danger (as in Gravity) if the parts put themselves together. Self-assembling space stations are a little way off yet, but what an opportunity to create technologies for mankind’s next leap forward.
Scientists looking to get around the restrictions of Moore’s Law – where smaller and smaller transistors come up against the physical limits of the material they are made from – are looking to optical computing. At Google’s Solve For X there is a Moonshot centring on the work of Prashant Jain. On the site Jain discusses how light can be used to send information orders of magnitude faster than electrons can.
Optical transistors can be made using ‘doped’ metal nano-particles that both absorb and emit light photons when electricity is supplied at specific frequencies. Sounds baffling, I’ll let Jain explain, see his video below, but essentially optics are faster and lose much less energy to heat than electronic transistor technology.