Forget nanotech. Think claytronics.

Looking for the next wave of robotics? Forget nanotech -- think 'claytronics.'

By Yi-Wyn Yen, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Like a lot of businesspeople, Todd Mowry hates videoconferencing with his colleagues. "It's like visiting someone in prison," he says. "You talk through a glass wall, but you can't deal with each other in a meaningful way."

Instead, Mowry has a radical vision for the future of long-distance meetings: You'll fax over an exact copy of your body, which will sit in that conference room thousands of miles away, mimicking your moves in real time and speaking with your voice.

It sounds utterly nutty, except for the fact that Mowry is a renowned computer scientist with the resources of the world's largest chipmaker behind him. As the director of Intel (Charts, Fortune 500) research in Pittsburgh, he's working full-time on the new science of claytronics.

He and fellow developer Seth Goldstein are designing a kind of programmable clay that can morph into a working 3-D replica of any person or object, based on information transmitted from anywhere in the world. The clay would be made out of millions of tiny microprocessors called catoms (for "claytronic atoms"), each less than a millimeter wide. The catoms would bond electro-statically and be molded into different shapes when instructed by software.

Think of claytronics as a more workable version of nanotechnology, which in its most advanced form promises to do the same thing but requires billions of self-assembling robots.

When Mowry started talking about claytronics as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in 2002, he met skeptics, such as Intel researcher Jason Campbell, who thought the software challenges were insurmountable. But processors are getting ever smaller, and at the submilli-meter level, they could communicate and move around independently, thanks to electrostatic forces.

"The more I thought about it," Campbell says, "the more I was convinced it could work."

So Intel and Carnegie Mellon joined forces in 2005 to cosponsor a project with a team of 25 robotics researchers and computer scientists. Their first breakthrough came last summer, when they developed software that can root out bugs in a system where millions of processors are working together.

The researchers say they will have a hardware prototype of submillimeter electrostatic modules in five years and will be able to fax complex 3-D models --anything from engagement rings to sports cars -- by 2017.

"These are the fundamental building blocks for a new world of processing," says Uche Orji, an analyst at UBS. "Intel can see the potential."

That potential could change the world. Who needs a TV when you can watch a live-scale replica of Super Bowl LXX being fought out by claytronic football players on your coffee table? Why would a firefighter run into a burning building when he can send a claytronic version of himself?

"If this works, it will be a really big deal," Campbell says. "It's computing in 3-D in everyday life."

ESTIMATED ARRIVAL: 2017

SHAPE-SHIFTING: Millions of tiny processors called catoms could turn, say, a laptop into a cell phone. Here's how.

Electrostatic forces bind catoms together in laptop form. Some act as antennas, picking up Wi-Fi.

The software tells each catom where to go. Catoms are spherical and roll around one another.

The catoms arrive in the shape of a cell phone. Antenna catoms are now picking up 3G signals. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.