Transformers from the Pentagon

blog post photo

Hey you Transformers fanboys out there: stop moping because that über-hottie Megan Fox has been dropped from the cast of the upcoming Transformers 3 flick that’s scheduled for release in the summer of 2011, reportedly after saying uncomplimentary things about director Michael Bay. 

Instead, check out this dispatch from the actual world, the one that exists outside your parents’ basement. For the past several years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the military brain-trust that does bleeding-edge research on exotic frontiers ranging from synthetic biology to machine intelligence — has been working to develop what essentially would be real working versions of the versatile shape-shifting robots of which you’ve become so enamored. The nerd-nomenclature for this technology is “programmable matter,” and here’s an explanation from DARPA’s website:

The goal of [the] Programmable matter program is to demonstrate a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external commmand. These 3D objects will exhibit all the functionality of their conventional counterparts.

Use your imagination a bit, and it’s easy to translate this into robots that would be able to convert themselves into trucks or airplanes or fancy espresso machines, or whatever, in the fashion of the fictional Autobots and Decepticons… or other scenarios that are even more mind-blowing. DARPA-funded scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for example, are working on something called claytronics, in which information gleaned from video images of a person or an object would be used to rearrange tiny building blocks called catoms into a functioning 3D clone of the original. And then, if necessary, the particles could rearrange themselves again and transform into a replica of something else. 

Here’s how a 2007 article from the website of Government Technology, a science publication, described a future scene in which firefighters might use claytronics to practice rescuing victims of a fiery car crash. 

Rescuers begin prying the car doors, breaking them free from their chassis. Then, in what seems like a magician’s sleight of hand, the firefighters’ tools evaporate only to reform moments later into a stretcher. The victim is loaded onto a spectral, makeshift bed and rushed from the scene to a waiting ambulance. The captain barks an order — the drill is over. The firefighters breathe a sigh of relief, and drop the stretcher and its occupant to the ground, where they appear to shatter into a billion tiny pieces.

A 2008 article from National Defense magazine’s website also describes DARPA’s efforts to create malleable robots capable of stretching and squeezing themselves into smaller shapes so that they could slip through small holes, in the fashion of the malevolent molten-metal T-1000 played by Robert Patrick in the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Btw, in retrospect, I would have rooted for T-1000 to get his quarry John Connor, if it would have prevented Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.)

Now flash forward to late June, and DARPA-funded Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers’ announcement that they had created self-folding metal sheets that can shape themselves into airplanes or boats — or, presumably, killer robots pretending to be airplanes or boats. (Okay, so we added the last capability to the list, but why not?) The researchers also envision using the “computational origami” technology to create such wonders as “smart” cups that would adjust their size, based on the amount of liquid poured into them, or multi-purpose tools that could transform themselves from wrenches into camera tripods. 

Video: A self-folding sheet becomes an origami boat and an origami plane. Credit: The Harvard Microbiotics Lab

Here’s an article from Wired‘s website that includes a video illustrating the new technology, which also, conceivably, could be used to fashion a remarkably lifelike clone of Megan Fox that only says nice stuff about her directors. Okay, that’s not in DARPA’s list of goals either, but we’re just saying, you know, they could if they wanted to.


  1. OutsideTheBox1
    July 7, 2010, 3:49 pm

    Great article, shame about the continuous references to movies and actresses. Is this Nat Geo or a movie blog?