Towards Programmable Matter


July 31, 2008


Seth Copen Goldstein


Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University


The claytronics project is working on realizing programmable matter.
Programmable matter is any substance which can be programmed to effect a change in one or more of its physical characteristics. In claytronics, the substance is a collection of individual units, each of which can sense, compute, communicate, and actuate. The long range goal for claytronics is for the collection to behave as a coherent mass and mimic, with high-fidelity and in 3-dimensional solid form, the look, feel, and motion of macro-scale objects. In this talk, I will describe some of the hardware and software challenges in realizing claytronics.

One of the main hardware challenges is to scale the individual units down in size while still including all the necessary functionality and allowing the entire ensemble to scale up in the number of units it contains. To achieve our goals units must be able to compute, communicate, move, attach and detach from other units, and sense the environment. To better understand the issues involved we are working on both sub-mm units as well as larger cm-scale modular robots.

In parallel with our effort to develop scalable hardware we are working on algorithms and programming languages which can scale to large ensembles. In an effort to reduce programming complexity we are developing declarative languages which automatically handle data distribution and communication. These languages have been used to implement planning, localization, network routing, and debugging tools.



Seth Copen Goldstein

Dr. Seth Copen Goldstein’s research focuses on computing systems and nanotechnology. Broadly speaking, Seth’s research is aimed at understanding systems nanotechnology. Among his research efforts are three research projects: the Phoenix project, the Claytronics project, and Brain in a bottle. The common theme among these projects is to understand how to design, manufacture, program, and use robust reconfigurable systems built with massive numbers of similar, and often unreliable, programmable units. Dr. Goldstein joined the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in 1997. He received his Masters and Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Before attending UC Berkeley, Seth was CEO and founder of Complete Computer Corporation. His undergraduate work was undertaken at Princeton University.The Brain in a bottle project is exploring how to build and use a brain-scale computing system using self-assembly for manufacturing and self-organizing networks for communication. The target is to put ~109 nodes into a 1 m3 volume for a total of 1011 MIPS, and most importantly in which each node will have approximately 106 connections to other nodes.The Claytronics project is investigating programmable matter. The goal of this project is to create an ensemble of sub-mm scale units which can be programmed to form dynamic macroscale 3D objects which can exert forces in the physical world. We are working on the hardware, software, and algorithms necessary to realize claytronics.