Programmable Matter Moves From Sci-Fi to Sci-Real

Quantum dots can change the very properties of matter by controlling electrons.

By Wil McCarthy|Thursday, October 09, 2008
RELATED TAGS: MATERIALS SCIENCE, ELEMENTS

The idea of programmable matter occurred to me in 1998. I was working on a short story that later evolved into a novel called The Collapsium and eventually into a series of books collectively known as The Queendom of Sol, a future history of the solar system (and some parts beyond). As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so in my books I sought to include technologies that felt like magic but had a basis in real science. Programmable matter certainly fit the “magic” part. This marvelous substance could be used to build anything from a chair to a spaceship and could transform itself almost instantly. A table could behave as if it were made out of gold one moment, out of diamond the next.

The “real science” part came from tiny semiconductor objects known as quantum dots, which confine electrons to a small space. Here’s the cool part: As far as the electrons are concerned, this environment is almost the same as the one they experience while bound in an orbit around an atomic nucleus. So the electrons behave as if they were part of an atom—exactly which type of atom depends on the size and shape of the dot, as well as the number of electrons pumped in or out of it. Change the number of electrons and you can switch from one atomlike electron structure into another.

I realized that if scientists could make quantum dots behave like synthetic atoms at room temperature in bulk, it would be possible to create materials whose properties could be adjusted in real time. In other words, we could really make programmable matter, or “wellstone,” as I called it in the book.

After The Collapsium hit the shelves, I started getting letters from skeptics, and I found myself writing complex articles to defend the concept. I visited labs and spoke with scientists all over the world about the actual state of the art. Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and more have teams working on quantum dots. There are thousands of researchers working on materials that exploit quantum effects to yield surprising properties, such as bending light around an object to make it invisible. My research culminated in a nonfiction book titled Hacking Matter. Because I’m an engineer, it also led to two patents and a start-up company, the Programmable Matter Corporation.

Today the technology is in the hands of a building-materials company called RavenBrick LLC, whose “thermo­reflective” windows and walls bring to life my fictional scenes in which buildings adapt to changes in the environment. Still, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what programmable materials may be capable of doing. I think science fiction has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in pointing the way. What follows is an edited excerpt from the last book in the Queendom of Sol series, To Crush the Moon. In the far future, the novel’s protagonists find themselves picking up the pieces centuries after a series of technological disasters.

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