Visionary designers and fiction writers speculate today about a future environment of nanotechnology and 'smart dust', able to create its form in response to external factors, or with an apparent will of its own. Although the manipulation of individual molecules on such a scale is still firmly in the realm of science fiction, this talk presents current research that makes this a reality at the millimetre, rather than the nanometre scale.
Using digital simulation, artificial intelligence, and rapid prototyping technologies, the microstructure of manufactured objects can be made to optimise itself to accommodate external physical loads or have desired dynamic properties, and can actually learn to improve its performance. The process simulates an interconnected lattice of intelligent structural agents. All materials, while treated as continuous, have complex internal structures that determine their properties: at the cellular level these give wood its strength, at the molecular level differentiate diamond from graphite. Just as each individual cell of living wood or bone is a part of a distributed intelligence, genetically programmed to take the form best suited to its particular relationship to other cells, these structural agents each possess a modicum of intelligence that allows the group to make such a computation quickly and efficiently.
Such principles can also be used in the analysis of human behaviour, allowing the environment to respond to us. While less well understood, social behaviour can be handled with similar models of complex systems and machine learning. The new technology can yield objects made of a material that shapes itself at the smallest level, or equally an intelligent structure at the scale of city. With recent architectural projects in excess of one kilometre and the enclosure of entire city neighbourhoods becoming a reality, such an approach may help to form our environment on a truly massive scale.
Video of Subtle Technologies Presentation