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MIT Duo Creates Algorithm To Power Replicating “Smart Sand”

Posted by AndrewH at 12:40 PM on April 2, 2012

Inanimate matter programmed to spontaneously create duplicates of any object. That’s what MIT student Kyle Gilpin and computer science and engineering professor Daniela Rus have figured out how to do (in theory, of course). The duo’s research project and subsequent paper they co-authored (to be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May) details an algorithm by which “smart pebbles” or “smart sand” could be programmed to form duplicate three-dimensional shapes based on the original item.

From MIT News, the best way to imagine how this would work is to think of immersing a small item (they use a footstool as an example) in this smart sand. The grains of sand read and effectively learn the shape by passing information back and forth via electric pulses sent through magnets (the magnets act to connect grains, as well as pass power and information). More accurately, the smart sand mimics shape, but through learning the space occupied by the item (specifically the border created by the item), rather than the item itself.

Hang on a second. You know who can explain this better? Paper co-author and PhD Kyle Gilpin himself:

The implications for scaling this technology are pretty amazing. Smart sand technology could theoretically be used to re-create broken mechanical parts; manufacture new tools or other items; or to take smaller items and make larger, identical replicas.

You think copyright and patent laws are complicated now? Imagine the hurricane of litigation that would surround the commercial or private use of smart sand.

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