CMU, Intel see fantasy as the future
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Imagine answering the telephone and a replica of the caller appears in front of you with realistic hair, skin texture, expressions and clothing.
You speak to the replica, who not only replies, but moves, acts and even feels like the person on the other end of the phone line. The replica even mirrors the real person's weight.
One might think the person had been beamed up, like Captain Kirk in "Star Trek."
But, despite the convincing realism, it's only a precise model created by billions of speck-sized robots known as "catoms," short for "Claytronic atoms," that move by hydrostatic electricity to form whatever shape they're programmed to create.
Futuristic, for sure. "Stars Wars," "Star Trek" and "Brave New World" rolled into one.
But, hey, this isn't fiction. Although decades in the future, the technology already is in development.
A research team created via a partnership of Intel, the computer processor giant, and Carnegie Mellon University, is working on many aspects of Claytronics or what Intel describes as "dynamic physical rendering" that would allow a computer system to replicate forms. But the process to create replicas of people will require loads of new technology and plenty of high-octane ingenuity.
Research already has produced pearl-sized catom prototypes. The small robotic modules someday will be no larger than specks. The hope is to program them to move independently and follow simple algorithms to combine into shapes that can replicate size, textures and colors, and once the form is created, move like the objects or humans they're replicating.
More immediate goals are creating technologies to fax three-dimensional forms, 3-D computer-aided design tools and even antennas that can grow or shrink depending on the size of signal to get better reception, said Seth Goldstein, a CMU computer scientist who is one of the creators of Claytronics.
"It's not if, but when," Dr. Goldstein said of his futuristic technology. "I believe that, and most of the people here believe it and many people not here today believe it."
The project stands as one example of why Intel is heralding its Intel Research Pittsburgh laboratory as a success.
The CMU laboratory, which includes about 20 researchers, is one of four that Intel created at computer-powerhouse universities over the past five years.
Labs also have been established at the University of Washington in Seattle, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Cambridge in England, but Intel has announced plans to close the Cambridge lab in a cost-cutting move.
The labs are designed to allow researchers to pursue big dreams and push computer technology to the technological limits of the imagination.
Dynamic physical rendering is a concept that Dr. Goldstein and Todd C. Mowry, director of Intel Research Pittsburgh, dreamed up when they decided to combine research and see how far they could advance it.
So far, technology doesn't exist to make it happen, but progress is being made. Creating catoms alone that can move independently and form shapes is a considerable challenge.
Dr. Goldstein said the project requires patience, hard work and creativity, and will require plenty of funding over several decades to bring it to fruition. But many innovations with wide-range applications will be realized along the way.
While Intel officials hope some ideas in development in the labs eventually will turn a profit, that's neither a focus nor concern.
"There is a wide range of exploration of topics that could change the direction of computers," said Andrew Chien, Intel vice president of research.
"We believe there's a breadth of experience that happens in academia. CMU is one of the elite universities in the U.S. and the world, and we can contribute and benefit from our relationship with the people here."
During an open house last week, researchers showed off various projects under way in the Intel lab, including one that could help medical officials better able to diagnose cancers.
Intel's Diamond project involves new methods of reducing mammogram images to numbers, then comparing them with known images to help doctors determine whether they show malignancies. The analysis, under development with help from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, would be beneficial for doctors working in rural hospitals.
The project also might serve as a means of diagnosing melanomas. Image evaluations and comparisons with known melanomas can provide strong indications of whether the blemish is a melanoma.
The process, already deep in development, could help prevent unnecessary biopsies and reduce medical costs, said Rahul Sukthankar, a principal research scientist at Intel Research Pittsburgh.
But related uses include a way to do Internet image searches. One project can highlight a motion in a computer video and identify the same motion, be it a tennis serve or dance move, elsewhere in that video or any other video on the Internet.
Another Intel project in development organizes all movies, photographs, files or songs on one's computer, cell phone, iPod or digital video recorders and other devices so everything can be organized and made available with a keystroke.
"This lab thing is great and has worked out very well," Dr. Goldstein said.
"CMU has benefited and Intel has benefited. There's a free flow of ideas, and I've seen only positives."
First Published November 1, 2006 12:00 am