Foresight Nanotech Institute Logo
Image of nano

The Ensemble Principle

Goldstein, Seth, Carnegie Mellon University Mowry, Todd, Carnegie Mellon University Campbell Jason, Intel Pittsburgh Research Lee, Peter, Carnegie Mellon University Pillai, Padmanabhan, Intel Pittsburgh Research Hoburg, James, Carnegie Mellon University Gibbons, Phil, Intel Pittsburgh Research Guestrin, Carlos, Carnegie Mellon University Kufner, James, Carnegie Mellon University Kirby, Brian, Carnegie Mellon University Rister, Ben, Carnegie Mellon University Derosa, Mike, Carnegie Mellon University Funiak, Stanislav, Carnegie Mellon University Burak Asok, Carnegie Mellon University Sukthankar, Rahul, Intel Pittsburgh Research

This is an abstract for a presentation given at the
13th Foresight Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology


Progress in nanotechnology requires more than the ability to control
and manipulate the very small. It also requires the ability to
manipulate and control massive numbers of the very small. In this
talk, we will describe Claytronics, a form of programmable matter.
Claytronics is an ensemble of massive numbers of units each of which
has the capability to compute, communicate, sense, and actuate. We
are investigating the design and manufacture of the individual units,
which we call claytronic atoms, or catoms, and the methods to manage
and control the ensemble. Our long term goal is to program the
individual catoms so that they will self-assemble into arbitrary
dynamic 3D objects.

Realizing this vision requires new ways of thinking about massive
numbers of cooperating units. Most importantly, it demands simplifying
and redesigning the software and hardware used in each catom to reduce
complexity and manufacturing cost and increase robustness and
reliability. Consequently, our designs strictly adhere to the ensemble
principle: A module should include only enough functionality to
contribute to the ensemble's desired functionality. Early results of
our research indicate that obeying the ensemble principle allows us to
significantly reduce the complexity of each unit. We briefly describe
some early results which highlight the effect of the ensemble

Our current prototypes, see attached figure, are built at the
macroscale. These units move, yet they have no moving parts. They
move using magnetic forces generated by two catoms cooperatively
activating electromagnets. We also exploit the ensemble principle to
power the catoms. The catoms themselves have no power source.
Instead, the catoms cooperate to form a power grid through unary
connectors between adjacent catoms. The grid provides both power and
ground to each catom.

The goal of the ensemble is to create arbitrary shapes. Traditional
approaches use high-dimensional search or gradient based methods to
plan the motion of the individual units towards their final assembly.
We have developed a method which, inspired from semiconductor physics,
uses random motion of voids in the ensemble to stochastically create
the desired shape. The motion of an individual catom is not planned,
instead the random movement of the voids combined with the creation of
voids at a surface (which moves the surface out) and the consumption
of a voids (which moves the surface in) effects a desired shape of the

The last example we discuss concerns the creation of a hierarchical
communication network. The network is used in to support different
types of communication between the catoms. Existing algorithms that
generate hierarchical networks (e.g. in sensor networks) use
techniques which result in a tree with a depth linear in the radius of
the represented object, which is simply too large when dealing with
the massive numbers of units in a Claytronics object. Our approach
creates variable length links which combine to form am optimized
network based on a single specified global metric.

Corresponding Address:

Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, pa 15213



Foresight Programs

Member Login




Home About Foresight News & Events Foresight Challenges Roadmap About Nanotechnology Resources Blog Members Store Privacy Policy

Foresight materials on the Web are ©1986-2007 Foresight Institute. All rights reserved. Legal Notices.

Web site development by Netconcepts. Email marketing by gravityMail. Maintained by James B. Lewis Enterprises.