If Oscar Wilde was right and life imitates art, I wonder what heíd have thought of milli-motein, a tiny robotic device designed with biological proteins in mind, and able to fold itself into any shape it pleases.
In short, itís a robot that can do what so many of us humans try and fail to do regularly; reinvent itself. In its original form it doesnít really look like much. A piece of scrap metal comprised of a few rings and strips. A bobbin. A thingamigig. That sort of thing. But give it half a chance and the little creature can apparently transform itself into the most complex forms.
Invented by head of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld along with visiting scientist Ara Knaian and graduate student Kenneth Cheung, the robot boasts an entirely new kind of motor called an electropermanent motor, which can hold its position even with power off. The little machine is also made out of one continuous strip, without conventionally moving parts.
The researchers have described the motor as one similar to the massive electromagnets that lift cars prior to crushing in the scrapyard, where a strong magnet and weak magnet are paired so they can either give each other a boost or cancel each other out as necessary.
Photo: MIT Center for Bits and Atoms
On the milli-motein scale, this means having a few permanent magnets paired up with circularly arranged electromagnets to drive a steel ring which surrounds them. This way "they do not take power in either the on or the off state, but only use power in the changing state," explained Knaian, making them incredibly energy efficient.
The robot was designed on a principle hypothesized by Cheung and other MIT professors and students previously, which claimed that mathematically, it was possible to make any 3-D shape by folding a sufficiently long string.
Gershenfeld has said the robot also represents a new way of "turning data into things," with the ultimate goal being to digitize materials to shape themselves, rather than them having to be manufactured. This would be the ultimate in programmable matter, where machines imitate life, and reproduce, like cells in biology.
Itís not the first time people have bandied about the notion that machines could eventually build themselves, and the whole 3-D printing revolution is adding to the craze, with people wondering how to print 3-D printers with 3-D printers. Yes, wrap your minds around that, if you can.
What would be different about the milli-motein is that itís not just a device that could change its own form, but one that could change its entire behavior, almost like a genetically mutating virus.
Gershenfeld said the robots could even link up to make themselves human sized, pointing out "Biology is the existence proof that it is possible."
Scary or just super cool? Let us know in the comments below.
A self-duplicating machine coupled with a computer simulation of a cancer cell and suddenly it would need a thermonuclear device to stop it. My point is that while it is certainly within the realms of possibility, it may be far outside the realm of a rational thing to do. On some occasions the potential for harm is so great that an activity must be halted. This offers the potential of being one of those times.
It isn't scary at all, because it is so limited. It can approximate what a single protein can do, but at a huge scale. It would take a city sized machine made up of these things to imitate the self-duplicating behavior of a cell that might be able to reproduce them. And a lot more brainpower to come up with the structure of the machine and the programming equivalent of the DNA sequences to make it all work.
Where I see this is most useful is to help people visualize what goes on inside a living cell and start to realize just how amazing a nano-scale machine it really is, and what it would take to make such a thing work.
It is a bit scary to me! I don't like the idea of machine reproduction as I wonder it ultimately will be out of controlled (at least most people couldn't). Frankly, I think the technology is moving too fast!
I think the philosophers and ethicist tend to show up after the fallout.
First it's the science fiction writers. Then the crazy people. After the crazy people get things going, the business folks coming and try to turn it into a business. If it becomes popular and useful, there's a good chance regulators will come next. Unfortunately, the regulators tend to regulate the safe parts and let the dangerous parts wreak havoc on society.
Finally, those philosophers and ethicists come in and contemplate what we should have done.
one of the beauties of the nature is that each species reproduces exactly its own replica - the shape, the size, the life cycle and everything.
Will the self creating materials follow ( hopefully the bug free software) the rules to the hilt so that there is no anarchy in the world?