Smart Dust, Utility Fog & Virtual People: The Future Of Programmable Matter

July 2020

Imagine billions of tiny robots, none larger than a grain of dust, working together as a swarm controlled by a computer. This forms the basis for a type of programmable matter capable of creating buildings, tools, and objects on demand — and possibly much more.

Utility Fog

Back in 1993, inspired by the vision of molecular nanotechnology created by Richard Feynman and later popularized by K. Eric Drexler, an innovator named Josh Storrs Hall had an idea.

Instead of seeing nanotech as a collection of “miniature factories” building complex products, Hall envisioned computer-controlled swarms of them working together to simulate macro-scale objects on demand. Each robot has 12 arms, and by holding hands with its neighbors, it can form a solid, liquid, or a “fog” —a micro-mechanical shape-shifter, if you will.

Anything you can visualize on a computer can be “simulated” in real life, including people, buildings, furniture, machines, etc. It lets you create, change or destroy nearly anything you want at will, in seconds.

Hall wrote about his vision for this in an article on Kurzweil AI Net, “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud:

“The Fog acts as a continuous bridge between actual physical reality and virtual reality. The Fog is universal effector as well as a universal sensor. Any (real) object in the Fog environment can be manipulated with an extremely wide array of patterns of pressure, force, and support; measured; analyzed; weighed; cut; reassembled; or reduced to bacteria-sized pieces and sorted for recycling.

As well as forming an extension of the senses and muscles of individual people, the Fog can act as a generalized infrastructure for society at large. Fog City need have no permanent buildings of concrete, no roads of asphalt, no cars, trucks, or busses. It can look like a park, or a forest, or if the population is sufficiently whimsical, ancient Rome one day and Emerald City the next.”

Hall’s concept of Utility Fog is big, ambitious and daring — but what it lacks is a practical avenue of development to realize his vision.

How do you build, power, and control billions of tiny dust-sized robots? Three decades after he proposed it, there may finally be a path to realize this vision.

Smart Dust

If utility fog is the destination, then smart dust is how we get there. Smart Dust is another swarm technology utilizing millions, perhaps even billions of sensor-packed microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to collect, process, store & transmit data about the environment around them.

Writing in Forbes, author Bernard Marr says “these miniaturized devices have sensors, cameras and communication mechanisms to transmit the data they collect back to a base in order to process,” and he’s bullish on its future applications:

“The potential of smart dust to collect information about any environment in incredible detail could impact plenty of things in a variety of industries from safety to compliance to productivity. It’s like multiplying the internet of things technology millions or billions of times over.”

Corporate America seems to agree with him — Marr cites companies such as General Electric, Cargill, IBM, and Cisco Systems that have invested in smart dust research, extending the original defense industry concept created in 1991 by the RAND Corporation & DARPA into the commercial sector.

Smart Dust isn’t here yet, but it’s not far off: it made the Gartner Hype Cycle list back in 2016, and Northrop Grumman speculates that advances in 3D printing and materials engineering have “significantly reduced the cost and time necessary to create microelectromechanical systems”.

Biomedical Applications

Smart Dust doesn’t just have to surround your body — it may even have applications inside of it — and medical research into MEMS is already underway.

Back in 2016, researchers at UC Berkeley demonstrated the first implanted, ultrasonic neural dust sensors, which can monitor & stimulate the nervous system from within the body, helping to treat disease and monitoring electrical impulses in the body to provide detailed information on a patient’s medical condition.

As Today’s Medical Developments has written, for sensitive applications like medical devices, it’s important to determine the long-term reliability & tracking potential failure of these devices before they’re implanted in the body.

Despite the potential risks, the benefits of a mind-machine interface using Smart Dust could be profound — providing new ways to treat nervous system diseases, repair injuries from inside the body, and even provide a mind-machine interface for direct human communication with machines.

Virtual People

The merger of man & machine can happen in another way, as well. By combining virtual telepresence technologies with nanotech utility fog, it might be possible to project their consciousness remotely.

Imagine a hyper-realistic simulation of another place, where utility fog allows you to see, hear & experience remote events by interacting with your body locally — and allows you to interact with the remote environment through distant, artificial body made of utility fog. In this scenario, your mind & body remain at home, but you experience & interact with the world in another location using utility fog as a communications bridge.

Such technology might eliminate the need for business travel, effectively allowing a person to “teleport” to any location at will. Attend a meeting in China and be home in seconds — or load up the space station with utility fog and let the astronauts simply work remotely as virtual people.

But what if you don’t have a “real” body to begin with? For decades now, transhumanists have been dreaming about uploading their mind to a machine when their biological bodies die. These people would then be the ultimate “ghost in the machine” — living as people via whole brain emulation, but without bodies.

Utility fog gives these “virtual” people bodies again, allowing them to project their consciousness from the machine back into the real world, letting them interact with the world as human beings, and potentially even live normal lives.


The potential capabilities of computer-controlled nanobot swarms containing billions of dust-particle sized robots is tremendous — offering potential in communications, medicine, construction, and even potentially new types of remote telepresence for communications & human interaction.

There’s no doubt that these technology is a Pandora’s box, and safety is one of the paramount concerns for explorers in this new technological world. But despite the uncertainties, the opportunities for smart dust & utility fog to benefit the future are simply too compelling to ignore — and both the government and commercial sector are already starting to explore them.

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