The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”¬† Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” ūüôā

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science.¬†Several of us have been following Mitch¬†Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he¬†is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in¬†that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which¬†he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.”¬†

One area where he has been¬†exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration,¬†Dr. Zakin¬†is directing¬†a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that‚Äē

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        РDARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with¬†reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave¬†the agency in 2010.¬†He is uncertain where he’s heading, but¬†perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in¬†Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing. ¬†

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it‚Äôs almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ‚ÄĚ

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