June 2007 Issue
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Modeling Clay

Twenty years from now, one of the most high-tech gadgets you will own just might be a pile of stuff. Not impressed? Seth Copen Goldstein, Carnegie Mellon associate professor of computer science, thinks you should be.

He's not talking about any ordinary mound of matter–he's referring to a box with millions of dot-sized robots, known as catoms, which can be programmed to form virtually any shape.

Not convinced yet? Consider this, says Goldstein: claytronics atoms, or catoms, can actually make three-dimensional faxes possible. Want to show a coworker across the country a prototype of a new product you're developing? Push your gizmo into a bucket of claytronics, and the miniscule robots will mimic the form and transmit it to a corresponding claytronics receptacle, thousands of miles away. The copy will look, feel, sound, and work just like the original gizmo.

Claytronics–a joint creation of Goldstein and Todd Mowry, director of the Intel Research Lab, Pittsburgh–is, at the most basic level, the control and manipulation of three-dimensional objects. At its most complex, Claytronics has the potential to change the business world, health care, and almost everything we know. It has certainly captured the attention of the media, including Discovery Channel Canada, which shot a short documentary that aired on the cable channel this spring.

All of the media attention is understandable. Imagine your doctor appearing in your home to perform a physical, though he's really in his office, or your boss being present in the boardroom, when, in actuality, he's on a trip halfway around the globe. This is Goldstein's example of Claytronics at its most advanced–the ability to use billions of catoms to send a precise and realistic copy of an individual (so realistic you can't tell the difference between it and the real person) to work, talk, and interact with others the world over.

It may sound like science fiction, but Goldstein has another word for it: the future.

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adam troye

what man can conceive man can do


How far into development is this? Are there any reasonable prototypes? Would the person have to be submerged in the Claytonics during a presentation? What about the doctor performing the physical, is he submerged in the claytronics as well? It seems like it would be difficult to do the job correctly while being surrounded by little gismos.


Well, imagine a surgeon who, instead of operating on your body at a scale of 1:1, operates on an enlarged claytronics model of your organ. That would make it more precise, am I correct?