Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Claytronics - Synthetic Publicity?

by Andre on 22 June 2005

You may have read some recent reports about a new revolutionary technology, toted as “synthetic reality,” that will allow you make a copy of a banana, turn your cell phone into a hammer and back again, or perhaps all you want to do is “project yourself around the globe” via the Internet. Sounds pretty incredible. Well, here’s the current state of the technology: oscillating hockey pucks. That’s right, computer scientists make magnetic hockey pucks and the scientific tabloids speculate about smart nano-computers as if they’re already here:

“The project is still in its infancy, but the researchers hope the new material – made of self-organising nano-computers that can stick to each other and communicate with built-in wireless – will eventually be able to shape-shift in an instant, forming a replica of anything from a banana to a human.”

That sentence seems to suggest that while its capabilities have yet to be exploited, the researchers have made some kind of nano-computer composite, that when programmed correctly will self organize into people. Can I remind you that the current state of the art is not-so-miniaturized magnetic hockey pucks? Infancy is a huge overstatement. The project is just a twinkle in its father’s eye.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this line of research is really interesting (watch the movies) and that programmable hockey pucks are awesome (as are programmable building blocks), but there is absolutely nothing “nano” about what they have reported. So why did they invoke the n-word? Could it be this? Probably in part. They may be honestly working for this far off goal, but so are the medical researchers (and chemists and biologists and physicists) who mention curing cancer in every press release about an incremental discovery. Sure, you’re aiming in that general direction, and you may even have an idea of how to get from here to there, but we still don’t have a cure for cancer after decades of war.

It’s great that people are excited about their work, and wild speculation has its place, but when science news turns into science fiction, there’s the potential for serious public relations problems. Just keep in mind that it’s the public that funds your research. It may be in your own best interest to excite the public, but you also have a responsibility to honestly inform it.

  1. PhilipJ    4266 days ago    #
    Wow, I hadn’t heard of this. I guess it is exactly because of the fact that “journals” like New Scientist have become so sensational, and all too often have entire articles about questionable science, that I don’t read them anymore! :)

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