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Wil McCarthy on his programmable matter career -- an ApolloCon 2009 Guest of Honor speech

P1050961 Wil McCarthy at ApolloCon 2009 demonstrates a programmable glass that grows reflective under heat

Wil McCarthy, a scientist and science fiction author, was the Guest of Honor at ApolloCon 2009. He gave a talk on the work he's been doing in programmable matter. He started off by showing the audience a piece of clear glass. Then he heated the glass with a hair dryer. An irregularly shaped reflective blob grew on the glass -- the heat turned the glass reflective. This was McCarthy's demonstration of materials he's working on in his startup.

Definitions and discussion of programmable matter can be found elsewhere on the web, and McCarthy did not dwell on the theory, but talked about his work in this area. His practical work in programmable matter developed from his nonfiction book "Hacking Matter", which it turn was born from his fiction. He talked about the events that lead to writing of "Hacking Matter", and how it attracted investors' interest, leading to creation of programmable matter startup. McCarthy talked about his company's journey to discovery of viable commercial applications for these materials, and why he avoids the word "nanotechnology" for marketing this technology to investors. He briefly discussed weapon potential and security issues of programmable matter with the audience. Finally, he talked about balancing his science and writing careers, or rather, impossibility thereof.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 are available in my photo gallery.

Read more about ApolloCon 2009 in my blog


The simplest notion of programmable matter is based on quantum dots. If we use electric electric fields to pump electrons in and out of a quantum dot, we'll create an atom that can be any element, says McCarthy.

McCarthy's first work of fiction on programmable matter was a novella titled "Once Upon A Matter Crushed" (1999), which later became the first third of the novel "Collapsium". In this novella McCarthy was trying to write a fairy tale, a fantasy with technologies that would seem like magic -- for example, materials that change on voice commands. After it came out, he got mail from people who said "I thought you were a hard SF writer! What's this nonsense with magic matter?" McCarthy replied that there was a real science behind this material. "Once Upon A Matter Crushed" became the first third of the novel "Collapsium", while McCarthy's correspondence with his readers turned into articles, and those articles then turned into a nonfiction book "Hacking matter". By the time the book was in the making, he realized programmable matter was a patentable idea, and filed a patent application. Scientists came up with objections why his idea won't work, but none of them were fundamental. A typical objection was "you need a million wires -- your material would be all wires". But that's a engineering problem, said McCarthy.

Wil McCarthy holds clear glass
Wil McCarthy holds clear glass, made of programmable matter...
Wil McCarthy heats glass
... heats the glass with a hair dryer...
Glass grows reflective under heat
... the glass grows reflective.
More pictures from ApolloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

One of the people who read "Hacking matter" was one of the co-inventors of Blackberry. He called McCarthy up one day and asked how much of this stuff he could really do. Wil said, probably a fair amount. So the Blackberry guy sent him a plane ticket, and they spend a couple of days hanging out. Among other things, they went to an institute for Quantum Computing. At the end of the visit the Blackberry guy said: "I want to give you guys a million dollars just to see what happens".

This was the start of a meaningful programmable matter engineering. Wil McCarthy's startup bought some equipment and formed an alliance with University of Colorado to use its facility. Then they started building devices. In about 3 years they got the devices to do interesting things, but they could not make them do the same thing twice. Finally they realized there was an important property called band gap. The semiconductors they worked with had a wide range of band gaps.

First commercial applications of programmable matter

Wil McCarthy's startup was working towards aerospace sensors as a first application of their technology. Unfortunately, timespans in aerospace engineering are very long. It was going to be a couple of years at least until revenue started to flow. There was no way to sustain the work over that period of time.

McCarthy wanted people to understand that the key feature of programmable matter was that you could change its properties on demand. In this it is analogous to a computer. Computer manufacturers don't know what a specific computer is going to be used for. It's a general purpose device. However, business community does not respond to the same argument regarding programmable matter. They want materials that do very specific things, serve very specific goals.

How does one market programmable matter to investors?

Feeling overwhelmed by business issues, the startup hired a CEO. That was a smart move, says Wil McCarthy. The CEO told them to forget aerospace materials. Can you do something for building materials, he asked?. Wil said, that's easy. We can make windows that turn reflective when it's hot. Apparently this well exceeded the CEO's expectations, since he thought Wil was joking.

Thus the company got into building materials, though the technology may also have applications in video displays. The primary angle of their marketing is their materials save energy. This statement makes people sit up and listen.

McCarthy avoids the world nanotechnology for marketing his company's products. The field of nanotechnology is already too crowded with companies pursuing the same things. He doesn't think he's smarter than the scientists in those companies; but if you're not smarter than all of them, there's no point in getting into it. However, people in building materials are not very smart, he says in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, so that's why he's pursuing that.

In an ordinary building, your windows and light fixtures are built into the ceiling or the wall, but in a house made of programmable material you could build windows into anything you wanted. Your windows could follow the sun -- or not, whichever you preferred. Your lights would be configurable too. In the future, an idea that lights and windows were objects would seem quaint, says McCarthy.

The audience asked him how the new kind of glass stand up to shock and vibration. McCarthy replied that the material is flexible, so shock and vibration are not a problem, but elevated temperature can be. Their glass starts having problems at around 60 degrees Centigrade. Interestingly, this might make it inadequate in some Northern European countries near the Arctic circle, where Sun never sets in summer. Due to constant exposure to sunlight, temperature in roof skylights can reach as high as 95 degrees Centigrade.

Another predictable question from the audience was weaponization potential of this work. McCarthy doesn't think programmable matter, as being developed by his startup, has any weaponization potential. "You can only change thermal and optical properties. But you can't make it give off a lot of energy," he says. "So you can make plutonium, but it wouldn't be radioactive?" a person in the audience asks. McCarthy confirmed.

However, there's another flip side to this technology: programmable houses are vulnerable to hackers. "Giving hackers the key to matter itself is something we want to do very, very cautiously," he joked.

His startup destroyed his writing career

When he was young, Wil McCarthy juggled a full time job and a full time writing career, and a personal life on 4 hours a sleep at night. But then he had kids, and it became impossible.

He says his startup completely destroyed his writing career. He doesn't have time for writing anymore, only for science. He felt his programmable matter career was something the world pulled him into it. When people kept finding out he could actually engineer some kinds of programmable materials, they asked if he could also create other kinds of materials. This has been different than his job as a writer, which is a push-job: you try to convince people to read your novels over someone else's.