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Self-assembling structure theory, then and now

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, programmer Bill Kline created a ProBlocks DOS simulation program. At the time, he explained the concept of ProBlocks:

Imagine a time when the structures that people want to build can simply assemble themselves! Using a number of identical cubes or Programmable Blocks (ProBlocks) with electromagnets in their 6 faces and simple electronics inside, structures can be built block by block by themselves. Starting with just one seed block, other blocks will be attracted to the faces of that seed block that have their magnets turned on. These other blocks will attract other blocks and so on, until the entire structure is built.

The outer part of a space station can self-assemble from a large bag of ProBlocks floating in space. An underwater dwelling can self-assemble from a bag of ProBlocks on the ocean floor. The average person could use ProBlocks around the house. Instead of having many specialized items that are only used for certain occasions, a set of ProBlocks floating in a liquid medium can be called upon to self-assemble into whatever is needed at the moment. The user could self-assemble a chair, table, desk, stairs, partition, bed frame, or counter when it is needed, then dissolve it back into ProBlocks when it is no longer needed.

It’s taken twenty years, but we’ve finally gotten to the point – well, actually we HAVEN’T gottten to the point yet. Research is still being conducted, such as this research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The team from MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory have developed a testable algorithm that uses interlinking smart systems – in this case, “smart pebbles.” These are cubes one centimeter across that contain four magnets and a basic processor, which map out the shape of objects they surround and communicate it to each other.

Once the shape of the object has been identified, the position of the smart cubes is remembered and used to replicate more copies of the original.

When self-assembling objects are finally available, it will be a blessing from me, since the phrase “some assembly required” often causes me to utter words that cannot be printed in a family-friendly blog such as this one.

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