Claytronics: Robot Swarm-Based 3D Shape-Shifting Objects
Claytronics is an idea for a set of tiny robots able to reform themselves into an infinite number of shapes. Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, has been working to create thousands of tiny robots that can be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to create various forms.
The idea is that each tiny robot can autonomously move into position relative to the others. It's basically programmable matter.
(Shape-shifting robot swarm video)
Each individual robot is called a "catom;" three dimensional models are called "parios."
It will have a massive change on the way we do everything," Goldstein said. "You'll essentially be able to sit in the same room with somebody who's not there… The 3D model would pick up the voice and a real-time image of the person its replicating over the Internet. It's not so far fetched. MP3s and movies are all encoded strings of bits today. Instead of having speakers and microphones, we'll have claytronics."
The concept may remind readers of the autofac nanorobots from Philip K. Dick's 1955 short story.
The cylinder had split. At first he couldn't tell if it had been the impact or deliberate internal mechanisms at work. From the rent, an ooze of metal bits was sliding. Squatting down, O'Neill examined them.
The bits were in motion. Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully - constructing something that looked like a tiny rectangle of steel.
(Read more about Dick's autofac)
Somehow, when Dick describes it, it sounds more sinister.
I have in mind a better example, which I think I have on the site, but can't find it. It described an object that was composed of a large number of robotic bits; it could effectively heal itself.
Consider the living metal cubes from The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt, Published by Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1920.