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Something interesting

Another of our transformative technologies posts – Here’s something interesting, have you ever heard of a catom? The fundamental building block of a cat right? Did you know that stroking a cat releases negative ions? I bet that’s the only circumstance where a negative ion is a cat ion.

Cat ion? Cation? Geddit?

Oh, never mind. Lets get to the point.

Catoms are the fundamental active unit in claytronic devices. Any the wiser? Well, you will be.

Sometime in the next five years the first primitive claytronics constructs will start being demonstrated, they will be affecting your lives within ten, and within twenty years they will be transforming human existence in ways that only the most visionary are starting to get glimpses of. If it gives you any hint, one of the world leaders in claytronics research is Intel; and they intend it to be BIG. Only they call it Dynamic Physical Rendering.

Ok, catoms/claytronics. Claytronics is the engineering/marketing term for a varient of programmable matter, and a catom is a single unitary particle containing all the active components that allow it to interact with other catoms and the outside world. As wikipedia puts it “sub-millimeter computers that will eventually have the ability to move around, communicate with other computers, change color, and electrostatically connect to other catoms to form different shapes”.

In other words, they aggregate together using magnetism, talk and cooperate via digital radio, autoconstruct dynamic mesh networks, flash at you in whatever colour you wish, and otherwise obey your every command.

3D fax?

Yep, thats right, different shapes. In fact, any shape you damn well wish. And within limits, any texture you wish as well. Fibres, particles, solids, you name it. And given that each catom can act as a pixel, whatever colour takes your fantasy.

Boggled yet? THIS IS NOT SCIENCE FICTION, and it is not something for your grandkids. It will be for you.

Right now? Intel report that they are producing catoms of millimetre size, and expect to shrink them to micron size within 5 to 10 years.

Ok, at millimetre size, assuming reasonable eyesight, and better than mine is becoming, you will be able to see each component, but at micron size? Forget it.

What colour do you want your car today?

Colour? Hell, what shape do you want the bloody thing?

This is where manufacturing techniques come into play, at a dollar each, of micron size, only the military will be able to afford to play with the things, but at a couple of cents per million? A million, sounds like a lot huh? At one micron each a million catoms would cover exactly one square millimetre. A couple of cents per billion maybe, giving us a cubic millimetre, then they will start becoming affordable to the rest of us. Making these things in usable quantities will give mass production and economies of scale whole new meanings.

Still, spray on televisions anyone?

Two inch high renderings of the players scarpering around your tabletop, as Geelong takes on the Gold Coast in the 2019 AFL Grand Final?

For we ubergeeks, here is a paper on the programming language used to control the buggers.

For other variations on this theme, try utility fog, and smart dust.

Seriously, when you look at this stuff, why would anyone bother with a God when there are human engineers around to admire? After all, what has God ever done for us? And what have the Intel engineers done?

More at Next Big Future


  1. Nick M says:

    Very interesting but… Why am I thinking of the little green soldiers from Toy Story?

    Seriously though this sounds a lickle bit in the future for me. What really gets me is smart paper. This is much closer and very Bladerunner – animated billboards and the ebook really taking off. But what’s really fun is printable (on an inkjet) circuitry. OK not real high-tech circuitry but sometimes you don’t need that high tech. Imagine circuits embedded into anything that is currently printed. The effect for the third world and for “shed start-ups” will be phenomenal. So it’s gonna go 2D first.

    Oh and think how cheap solar cells will become. Cats, you been following the progress in solar cells. It’s phenomenal and frankly shows just how out of touch gubbermints are over the literally Quixotic rush to bloody windmills.

    The real two things we really need are energy and quite literally a second industrial revolution in the sense of making manufacturing dog-cheap and capable of being done literally anywhere. These are big issues. I seem to think genetics and computing seem to be trogging-on rather well as it is. Especially the truly mind-blowing possibilities of Quantum Computing.

    We live in interesting times. Alas Goorgon Brownshirt is rather than cutting taxes and letting our creativity free is borrowing even more money to spend on good old fashioned big public works. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s (secretly) calling it a five-year plan.

  2. CountingCats says:

    Why am I thinking of the little green soldiers from Toy Story?

    Because apart from being green, they fit the model perfectly.

    As for the other stuff, well, do you want me to cover the lot immediately? Don’t be impatient. After all, had you heard of a catom?

    Cost of space based solar power, power for ever and ever and ever, beamed to earth, should fall below the cheapest fossil fuel sometime in the next fifteen years.

    What’s the bet that they slap a carbon levy on it, just as NeuArbeit have done with nuclear, using lying fantasy to fuck the potential cost advantage sideways.

  3. RAB says:

    Mind boggling, and wonderful!
    Keep the info coming Cats.

    But Nick is correct. The fuckers in Govt havent caught up with computers yet, they are bound to find way to fuck up any advantage that accrues from this for the UK, just like they did with every other bit of cutting edge technology we have ever produced.

  4. Nick M says:

    I was being rhetorical about the little GIs. Though they would be something that as a kid I’d have killed for. As a kidult they’re something I’d commit genocide for.

    The problem with orbital solar is the old gravity well. And for that we need a space elevator and a lunar base. Fabricate stuf on Luna and it’s a doddle to get it back over into Earth orbit. No, the big objection to orbial solar will be the ultra high power microwaves (or whatever) they use to beam it home. Oh I can see them kicking up so many safety and enviro-stinks about that. Any of you hear Cheerful Charlie Chuckles lecturing the Japs on the “Climate Crunch”? Jeezus! Apparently he’d been shadowed round a visit to a science museum by that Honda ambulant robot and was non-plussed. I mean one was an emotionless thing of plastic and the other was the heir to the throne of England.

  5. El Draque says:

    New stuff ! Great!
    I’ve been following the development of the small nuclear units, like the pebble-bed reactor the Chinese are developing. So small you could use it to power a truck (But do you want one of those behind your rear window?)
    And a “sealed-at-the-factory” reactor is coming in five years that will burn for ten years and leave a single bucketful of nuclear waste.
    There’s nothing to worry about; oil will stop being used long before it runs out.

  6. Nick M says:

    El Draque with UK petrol over a quid a litre I’ll take my nucleonic chances!

  7. CountingCats says:

    El Draque, you talking about the Hyperion Nuclear Reactor?

    Mount one on a thousand ton mobile weapons platform, and viola – you gotta Bolo.

  8. El Draque says:

    Yes, I think tha’s it, from Hyperion.
    Excuse my ignorance, but what’s a Bolo?

  9. Simon Williams says:

    El Draque, a Bolo is a giant intelligent tank from a series of stories by Keith Laumer (check out his Retief stories too).

  10. Nick M says:

    Nah, that’s a one-shot kill. The future lies in swarms of itty-bitty (maybe bug-sized things) networked in an ad-hoc manner. Dump a few million on seek and destroy over Waziristan out of the back of a C-130 and our troubles would soon be over…

    Imagine if they could metabalize human felsh as well!

    Fly my pretties!

    I shall leave Bolos to the Mech Wars types.

  11. CountingCats says:


    Room for all types. If you want to have LASER canon then you gotta have a mobile weapons platform and the power source to drive them both.

  12. Alisa says:

    How is this different from nano?

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