To attach to each other, to communicate and to share power, the cubes use 'electropermanent magnets,' materials whose magnetism can be switched on and off with jolts of electricity. Photo: M. Scott Brauer/MIT
Forget smart cars, smart appliances and smartphones. MIT researchers are taking intelligent inanimate objects to a more granular level: smart sand.
The effect they're aiming for, as described on MIT's news site, is this: You would bury an object in smart sand. Seconds later, you'd be able to pull from that sand a full-sized sand replica of the object.
Smart sand isn't, however, at sand scale yet. So far the researches have conducted experiments on dice-sized cubes in a two-dimensional grid.
The cubes are configured with special magnets that allow each one to communicate with and attach to its neighboring cubes. When there's an object inserted into a grid of cubes, those that touch it notice they're no longer touching another cube. They inform the others that they are one of the cubes outlining the object — together defining exactly how the object is shaped.
With the perimeter of the original object thus defined, other cubes have the information they need to attach themselves in the same shape. All cubes not participating in this shape drop away. And wha-la, a duplicate shape is created (those interested in the less-simplified details should read this).
This two-dimensional, cube-sized simulation doesn't quite match the vision of self-sculpting sand, but the project's creators have performed computer simulations that show the same system would work in a three-dimensional environment as well.
As for shrinking the experiment?
"They have the ability to latch onto their neighbors; they have the ability to talk to their neighbors; they have the ability to do some computation," an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University named Robert Wood told the MIT news site. "Those are all things that are certainly feasible to think about doing in smaller packages."
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