Claytronics, smart dust, and utility fog: mind-blowing, shape-shifting, next-level tech

  • Nanotech is the magic that can cast a spell on matter: Claytronics
  • Smart Dust: the next step forward
  • Utility fog is on the horizon, and it’s shaping up to change life as we know it

Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, insisted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. That’s a bold claim, but one that’s pretty easy to understand. Imagine telling your great-grandparents that by 2018, a hand-held device could give them access to an entire library, nearly instantly. They would almost certainly think that was impossible – a break from science and technology as they understood it.

Most of the tech we discuss is comprehensible. From virtual reality to self-driving systems, it’s not hard to grasp the basics of the science and see how these systems work. But there are advances coming soon that are much, much harder to understand, and their power to change how we live is simply unbelievable.

Imagine a world in which the very air around you is filled with billions of nano-scale machines. Need a chair? Just think of one and the air around you assembles itself into a comfortable seat. Need to get across the city? An invisible wave scoops you up and rushes you across town. Want to fly? These microscopic machines lift you high into the air.

That sounds like magic, right? But it’s actually new technology.

Nanotech is the magic that can cast a spell on matter: Claytronics

Nanotechnology takes advantage of the strange properties of matter at the quantum level. For example, a single-molecule-thick layer of simple graphite, a material called graphene, is vastly stronger than steel, 1000 times lighter than paper, and highly conductive. It’s finding uses everywhere from the aerospace industry to medicine. Gold, too, exhibits weird properties on the nano-scale, and this strangeness has practical uses. It’s selectively absorbed by tumours and then, when heated, burns cancer cells to death without harming the surrounding tissues.

But that’s just the ‘normal’ nano-scale tech. At the cutting-edge of the nano-revolution, you’ll find ideas so strange that they seem like magic.

A mosaic of 8 pictures representing electronic nano-scaled devices
Carnegie Mellon University’s Seth Copen Goldstein and Todd Mowry have been researching something they call Claytronics.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Seth Copen Goldstein and Todd Mowry have been researching something they call Claytronics. In its essence, the idea is to manipulate matter at the nano-scale. Relying on nano-scale ‘catoms’, their ‘clay’ is an experiment that almost defies imagination. “I think of Claytronics as a way to shape a property we can control in software … That capability would let us record and play back shapes much as today’s audio and video recording do the same for sound and appearance,” says Jason Campbell, a researcher from Intel Labs who worked on the project until 2010, when the cost of working at the nano-scale scared away investors. Research continues at Goldstein’s facility, and as the tech matures, we’re pretty sure investors will notice.

Smart Dust: the next step forward

And as early as 1997, research was underway at Berkeley on a new approach to nanotech. Rather than the matter-shaping of Claytronics, the idea was to pack nano-scale particles with a power supply, sensors, and a means of communication. Called Smart Dust, the idea was the brainchild of the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Almost certainly envisioned as a high-tech tool for spying, these tiny, floating motes could invisibly collect data and send it back to their creators.

Advances continue, but research has now moved to John Barker’s lab at the University of Glasgow. And while he admits that there are still intelligent applications for the tech, his vision is fixed firmly on space exploration. As he explains, “Swarms of smart dust might be packed into nose cones of planetary probes, and subsequently ejected into the atmosphere of a planet where they would be carried by the wind”. That could allow us to explore incredibly hostile environments in minute detail – a real breakthrough for science.

Utility fog is on the horizon, and it’s shaping up to change life as we know it

Gartner routinely publishes what it calls a Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. Basically, it assesses where new tech is on the hype curve, moving from innovation through inflated hype to real adoption and utility. Some products never do well; others outperform expectations.

Claytronics and Smart Dust are really just getting a start, and it’s early days for both technologies. Gartner thinks Smart Dust needs decades more work to be viable. But that hasn’t stopped creative innovators from extending this early research in life-changing directions.

Dr J. Storrs Hall, the genius behind the idea of the utility fog, has been working on this concept for decades as the tech behind it has advanced. His idea is a hybrid of both Claytronics and Smart Dust, a ‘fog’ of nano-scale devices that sense and transmit data and change shape. Termed Polymorphic Smart Materials, these ‘foglets’ would be the consistency of falling snow, invisible (except when they weren’t), and transformable at our will.

A graph showing the timeline of adoption of various cutting-edge technologies
Gartner routinely publishes what it calls a Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.

This miracle is possible because these tiny machines can coordinate with one another, linking themselves with microscopic arms, and thereby exerting force in any direction (and from any shape) imaginable. As Human Paragon reports, “If you had control over utility fog you could make objects appear and disappear at will. You could make just about anything appear out of seemingly thin air. The fog can let you pass without an issue, so you can be surrounded by it. Want a chair? Just as soon as you utter that wish a chair would appear before you. It’s almost like true holodeck technology in the Star Trek vein”.

But to make this feasible, nanotech needs to advance for a decade or more, and the utility fog probably demands something like artificial general intelligence (AGI) to work. AGI is a lot more than the generic smarts behind Google searches or Siri; it’s more akin to a thinking being in its own right, an entity that’s generally smart. We’re no closer to that than we are to the utility fog, but it may be that your children’s children will see this incredible tech unveiled.

In short, you probably don’t need to worry about a utility fog coming to a store near you anytime soon. But a few decades from now? We’d bet on the tech developing by then. And when it does, the world won’t be what it is now.

It’ll be magical.

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

All lectures