What Is Programmable Matter?

Mary McMahon

Programmable matter can respond to input to change physical shape and other characteristics. This input can include commands from a user, much like those used to direct a computer, as well as feedback from an automated controller. The technology behind programmable matter has a wide range of potential applications for consumer products, scientific research, and military uses, among others. Research into this subject rapidly evolved in the early 21st century as firms with an interest in the topic began producing early prototypes and plans for more.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

There are several approaches to the development of programmable matter that can be based on things like fluids, composites, and robotics systems. In all cases, the matter is capable of changing one or more properties. It could grow darker or lighter in response to input, for example, or might transform into another shape on command. The individual molecules within it may be able to change shape, creating molecular-level variations in composition that may be applied in a number of ways.

One application for programmable matter is in information processing and transmission. Such devices can also transmit energy without any embedded data inside. One example is that of a cell phone that maintains a small size when not in use, but can expand into a full tablet or handset when the user issues a command to do so. This could allow for compact packing while providing access to features the user might sometimes want or need. Programmable matter is necessary for the shape transitions, as well as the ability to interact with the user, send data, and receive information.

In addition to directives from the user, some programmable matter may interact with robots and computer programs which can control it automatically. This can make it useful in settings where humans cannot go, like an exploratory landing on a planet with an unsafe atmosphere. Automation of some processes with the use of programmable matter can also increase safety and efficiency in facilities like factories. Components that respond to environmental factors can also be useful for settings where rapid response may be important.

Private companies work on programmable matter research to further their own product lines and develop new products for consumers. Their research, as with that of government agencies working on confidential projects, is typically proprietary and not available to the general public. At organizations working in the public interest as well as academic institutions, information about research and development may be more readily available for the benefit of people with an interest in the subject.

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