Transformers point way to programmable matter

From houses that build themselves, to nanoparticles that cure diseases, this stuff of science fiction may be closer than we think.

As with many of science fiction’s most popular creations, there’s a grain of truth and a fleeting glimpse of potential reality behind the gigantic morphing robots in the Transformers movies that have lured massive audiences worldwide.

The intimidating robots are made from a make-believe substance called transformium, which can shape-shift. Transpose that into something called programmable matter and you’re suddenly dealing with reality.

Not only reality, but an area of research that could revolutionise manufacturing and medicine, and give astonishing powers of creation to ordinary people. The ability to morph mobiles into laptops, or chairs into couches, are just two potential examples.

Scientists are researching programmable matter in different ways; using nanotechnology to produce new shape-shifting materials, working with the building blocks of life to create DNA origami, and building hordes of tiny computers that will bind together to form whatever they are programmed to create. 

Seth Goldstein, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, aims to use what he calls claytronics to program millions of computers the size of grains of sand to form replica humans.

The idea is that when you phone someone, a claytronics replica of the person you are calling appears in the room with you and duplicates their voice and movements. ‘‘That way you can have a very real experience of being in the same place with somebody – voice, vision and touch,’’ Goldstein says.


Alex Lorimer, an architectural theorist and computer programming student at Plymouth University, has developed a substance he calls ‘‘silly putty’’ that can adjust its shape and viscosity in response to magnetic forces. 

It poses the prospect of a smart material that could be dumped on an empty block and then build itself into a house. Lorimer envisages architecture that changes spontaneously to new requirements. ‘‘You could liken it to living cells,’’ he says.

Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is developing 4D printers to churn out objects that can reshape themselves or self-assemble when exposed to water, movement or changes in temperature. He sees them being used for self-adapting clothes or buildings that adjust to the weather.

Such scientific wizardry, although proved in laboratories to be well within the realms of possibility, is unlikely to become reality for decades. But one leading Australian scientist says other significant advances are just around the corner.

A CSIRO senior principal research scientist, Professor Dave Winkler, works in a field that takes his mind from the patterns formed by distant stars to clusters formed by atoms and molecules. He looks at the big picture by studying complex systems and how their laws can be applied to programming smart material. 

‘‘What complex systems teach you is that incredibly diverse systems – economic, cellular, the distribution of wealth, the fall of civilisations – have great similarities,’’ he says. ‘‘I started looking at that about 10 years ago and it profoundly changed the way I thought about all kinds of things.

‘‘Programmable matter at its most basic level is designing a material that has components within it with instructions for self-assembly. Basically you’re trying to mimic what nature does, and nature does a superb job of creating all sorts of objects that self-assemble.

‘‘I can sit at my laptop and make DNA form precisely the shape I have designed on the computer. That’s at an extremely small scale but the principles you learn from how DNA can self-assemble can also help you to learn how to make other materials that spontaneously build into useful objects.’’ 

Professor Winkler says it’s hard to extrapolate where the technology is heading but he believes test kits that general practitioners can use to easily detect a wide range of diseases will revolutionise medicine in the near future.

‘‘You can build nanoparticles made of gold as small as a millionth of a millimetre that have instructions on the outside of them,’’ he says. ‘‘When they encounter a particular disease, such as diabetes or cancer, the particles on the outside will come together and change colour – say, from red to blue. 

‘‘That’s one of the revolutions happening in diagnostics, and I think it will be on the market relatively soon.’’

Speaking from an international conference on nanoscience and biology in Brisbane, Professor Winkler says nanotechnology is predicted to have a multi-trillion-dollar market in the next decade or so.  

‘‘Being a computational scientist with a background in complex systems is relatively unique, and I can apply that to a whole range of things,’’ he says. ‘‘Modelling stem cells to decide what they should do, designing new drugs, working out how smart materials will spontaneously form themselves into the shape that you need.

‘‘I cover a lot of different ground with a set of common skills, and that makes it incredibly exciting.’’