Programmable Matter, Smart Matter
Smart Matter
Image from Phantasus

Snapshot - Smart Matter

The storm that night had been the biggest yet, 260km/h winds! The house anti-acoustics muted its passing, but I stayed up most the night accessing the feeds. I winced whenever a boulder struck the shallow outer dome, but teddy explained it was ok. He said the shell was a thick mesh of hyperdiamond and foam-phase smart matter. Even though I didn't understand the meaning of the words at the time, and being just shy of four-years-old I wasn't inclined to access the courseware, seeing that teddy wasn't afraid calmed me.

In the morning we went outside with grandsire. The air was thick enough now that we only needed mouth-masks. Grandsire walked around the circumference of the house, whistling as they went. I could sense their public thoughts; they were happy the storm was over and would be happier still when the impact phase of the terraforming was complete. Halfway round the house they stopped, bending low to pick something from the sand. It was shaped like a jagged blade, its surface smooth and matte. They held it out and asked if I knew what it was.

Teddy was silent, he didn't even help with his inner voice. But I realized what the shard was, it bore the same navy colouring as the house's shell. Sure enough at the base of the shell next to us was a small crack. It was only as shallow as my pinky, barely a scratch. Grandsire told me to look closer at the damage. To my surprise the inside of the crack looked furry. After teddy set my eyes to zoom I could see that the fur was really a mat comprised of thousands of glistening threads, spreading over the surface. The threads grew from tiny holes which reminded me of the soil fungi grandsire had shown me one time. The threads were forming patterns, growing fatter and denser.

Grandsire told me to look at the shard. My eyes could only make out a honeycomb pattern at high zoom, they hadn't fully grown in yet. Teddy let me borrow his perceptive data. The shard was made up of tiny cells, just a few microns across. The surface cells were hexagonal, but an overlay revealed layers of more convoluted arrangements. The cells slotted together in hexes, cuboids, pyramids, and cylinders, with a few irregular prism shapes here and there. Their membranes were spider webs of molecular machines wrapping spongy interiors. Tracking the larger structures I noticed cell-lined channels. I watched as a lozenge, filled with some nutrient fluid, was pushed by the walls towards a switching junction. My eyes followed the maze, spotting similar patterns for mycelial power and data fibers. Fluidic microchannels pumped hot-coloured coolant from the depths to the surface, while darker peristaltic tubes moved waste. Grandsire pointed out lacuna with different devices to the cells, fat droplets of hydrogel packed with wet-phase molecular machinery. We watched as waste fluid was pushed through a cylindrical lacuna. Gas fizzled from the rapid-reactions digesting the material, useful products were pumped into side channels. Lozenges were loaded there ready to make deliveries to far away sites, journeys of whole tens of centimeters. At the end of the column an even darker waste product extruded.

Teddy pointed out the surface of the shard was beginning to look a bit like the crack. Thready mats were growing there too. As they expanded they chewed up the micro-scale debris from the fragmentation, itself probably caused by a particularly nasty boulder hit. Grandsire explained about differentiation and specialization as the mats finished their cleaning and began growing into a fresh cell layer. Surface machinery on the threads sunk through outer membranes to be packed into polymer sacs. We followed as the sacs were passed through valves towards a transport tube. These cells didn't need those parts anymore grandsire said, so they would go to other smart matter that did. Or they'd be recycled.

After watching for several more minutes I began to get worried. The transport network was getting more requests than it could handle, a growing number of them flagged with high priority ratings. Starvation signals were flashing up everywhere but there was more waste in storage than feedstock. The recyclers were working as best they could to feed the hungry fabricators, draining the few remaining power cells. It became obvious to me that the shard was dying. There wasn't enough power or nutrients for the synthetic life to stabalise. Before I could cry grandsire hugged me and smiled. They put the tiny shard in my hand and told me what to do. I pressed it against the crack and watched intently. Through the overlays I saw the thread mats make contact, it made them writhe like crazy. In seconds they'd knotted up enough for me to stop holding the piece in place. Worm-like tunnelers munched through material to lay new channels for power, data, coolant, and transport tunes. We watched for a few minutes more as the smart matter began to fuse with the whole, like melting wax in reverse. Teddy said the shell would have regrown the lost piece, that the dying shard would have been digested by the litter-bugs to feed the nascent soil. Grandsire said it was best to be efficient, to save resources where you could.

Before we returned inside Grandsire told the house to show me one last thing. The outer shell shifted colours to create a kaleidoscopic pattern of threads. Greens, oranges, yellows, and a few hairline reds. These were all the fracture lines the house was repairing. None of them had breached a tenth of the shell's bulk, and all would be fully healed long before the next impact. We didn't have anything to worry about living in our home. I was never scared of the storms after that day.
Programmable matter includes any form of matter which can change its physical properties on command. This includes matter which can change its shape, its density, colour, chemical properties or which can perform information processing. Often known as smart matter.

Shape-changing programmable matter includes Utility Fog, Utility Sand, Hyperfog, Nanoflex and other modular robotic materials.

Several kinds of programmable matter can change their chemical and physical properties (especially optical properties) by means of quantum confinement technology and related effects. Quantum confinement technology uses fine control of exitons (electon/hole pairs) to alter the properties of a material; this confinement can occur in one dimension (quantum wells) two dimensions (quantum wires) and three dimensions (quantum dots). Quantum confinement technology is used in many optical phased array systems to emit and absorb selected wavelengths of light.

Matter which is primarily capable of information processing is generically known as computronium; this type of matter can take many forms, which have different uses in different environments.

Modosophont level technology has developed many different kinds of metamaterials for a wide variety of uses, many of which use which use a combination of macroscale and nanoscale engineering, quantum effects and information processing to produce smart matter with many useful properties.

Transapientech smart matter exists in many forms, with many remarkable characteristics such as adjustable strength, density and phase. Some forms of transapient smart matter can be replicated by modosophonts; the required technology may have been given to them by benevolent transapients at some point in the past, or it may have been retroengineered by the modos themselves. Other forms of smart matter (such as the Dittocube) defy all analysis, and are considered to be clarketech.

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Development Notes
Text by Steve Bowers
Initially published on 16 October 2011.