In its laboratories, Intel has already created an array of catoms that are about an inch in size. The catom resembles a cube, except it has scores of tiny electrodes spread evenly on its surfaces. What makes these catoms so unique is that you can change the charge on each of its electrodes, so that catoms would bind to each other in different orientations. With one set of charges, these cubes might combine to create a large cube. Change the charges on each cube’s electrode, and then the catoms disassemble and quickly rearrange themselves into an entirely different shape, such as a boat.
The point is to shrink down each catom down to the size of a grain of sand, or even smaller. If one day silicon etching techniques allows us to create catoms that are as small as a cell, then we might be able to realistically change one shape into another, simply by pushing a button. Justin Rattner, a senior fellow at Intel, says, “Sometime over the next forty years, this will become everyday technology.” One immediate application would be for automobile designers, airline engineers, artists, architects, and anyone who has to design three-dimensional models of their projects and then continually modify them. If one has a mold of a four-door sedan, for example, one can grab the mold, stretch it, and it suddenly morphs into a hatchback. Compress the mold a bit more and it turns into a sports car. This is far superior to molding clay, which has no memory or intelligence. Programmable matter has intelligence, can remember previous shapes, adapt to new ideas, and responds to the designers’ wishes. Once the mold is finalized, the design can be simply be e-mailed to thousands of other destinations, which can then reassemble exact copies.
This could have a profound effect on consumer products. Toys, for example, can be reprogrammed to change shape by simply inserting new software instructions. So for Christmas, one need only download the software blueprints for a new toy, reprogram the old toy, and an entirely new toy appears. Children might celebrate Christmas not by opening up presents under the tree, but by downloading software for their favorite toy that Santa has e-mailed them, and the catoms making up last year’s toy become the hottest thing on the market.