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last update: 20/05/08




       Utility fog is a hypothetical collection of tiny robots, envisioned by Dr. John Storrs Hall while he was thinking about a nanotechnological replacement for car seatbelts. The robots would be microscopic, with extending arms reaching in several different directions, and could perform lattice reconfiguration. Grabbers at the ends of the arms would allow the robots (or foglets) to mechanically link to one another and share both information and energy, enabling them to act as a continuous substance with mechanical and optical properties that could be varied over a wide range. Each foglet would have substantial computing power, and would be able to communicate with its neighbors.The idea of nanobotic swarms was detailed as early as in 1964 by Stanislaw Lem in the novel The Invincible.

       In the original application as a replacement for seatbelts, the swarm of robots would be widely spread-out, and the arms loose, allowing air flow between them. In the event of a collision the arms would lock into their current position, as if the air around the passengers had abruptly frozen solid. The result would be to spread any impact over the entire surface of the passenger's body. This is a concept similar to in function, though different in detail, to that of the "crash field" presented in Larry Niven's science fiction short story "The Soft Weapon" (1967), and is also similar in function to the inertial dampers of Star Trek and other science fiction series.

        Utility fog is sometimes thought of as a nanotechnological version of the Swiss Army Knife.While the foglets would be micro-scale, construction of the foglets would require full molecular nanotechnology. Each bot would be in the shape of a dodecahedron with 12 arms extending outwards. Each arm would have 4 degrees of freedom. When linked together the foglets would form an octet truss. The foglets' bodies would be made of aluminum oxide rather than combustible diamond to avoid creating a fuel air explosive.

        In the postcyberpunk comic series Transmetropolitan, there are a race of beings known as foglets. Through a complicated technical process, their consciousness is transferred into a cloud of billions of foglet robots - a process they see as stripping away their biological limitations and leaving them with only personal amusement. The now-vacant body is then used as fuel to jump-start the foglet. They can spread themselves so thin they seem invisible, and come together as a pink cloud of dust with digital faces when they wish to be seen.


       Nanotechnology is based on the concept of tiny, self-replicating robots. The Utility Fog is a very simple extension of the idea: Suppose, instead of building the object you want atom by atom, the tiny robots linked their arms together to form a solid mass in the shape of the object you wanted? Then, when you got tired of that avant-garde coffeetable, the robots could simply shift around a little and you'd have an elegant Queen Anne piece instead.

       The color and reflectivity of an object are results of its properties as an antenna in the micron wavelength region. Each robot could have an "antenna arm" that it could manipulate to vary those properties, and thus the surface of a Utility Fog object could look just about however you wanted it to. A "thin film" of robots could act as a video screen, varying their optical properties in real time.
Rather than paint the walls, coat them with Utility Fog and they can be a different color every day, or act as a floor-to-ceiling TV. Indeed, make the entire wall of the Fog and you can change the floor plan of your house to suit the occasion. Make the floor of it and never gets dirty, looks like hardwood but feels like foam rubber, and extrudes furniture in any form you desire. Indeed, your whole domestic environment can be constructed from Utility Fog; it can form any object you want (except food) and whenever you don't want an object any more, the robots that formed it spread out and form part of the floor again.

       You may as well make your car of Utility Fog, too; then you can have a "new" one every day. But better than that, the *interior* of the car is filled with robots as well as its shell. You'll need to wear holographic "eyephones" to see, but the Fog will hold them up in front of your eyes and they'll feel and look as if they weren't there. Although heavier than air, the Fog is programmed to simulate its physical properties, so you can't feel it: when you move your arm, it flows out of the way. Except when there's a crash! Then it forms an instant form-fitting "seatbelt" protecting every inch of your body. You can take a 100-mph impact without messing your hair.

       But you'll never have a 100-mph impact, or any other kind. Remember that each of these robots contains a fair-sized computer. They already have to be able to talk to each other and coordinate actions in a quite sophisticated way (even the original nano-assemblers have to, to build any macroscopic object). You can simply cover the road with a thick layer of robots. Then your car "calls ahead" and makes a reservation for every position in time and space it will occupy during the trip.

       As long as you're covering the roads with Fog you may as well make it thick enough to hold the cars up so they can cross intersections at different levels. But now your car is no longer a specific set of robots, but a *pattern* in the road robots that moves along like a wave, just as a picture of a car moves across the pixels of a video screen. The appearance of the car at this point is completely arbitrary, and could even be dispensed with--all the road Fog is transparent, and you appear to fly along unsupported.

       If you filled your house in with Fog this way, furniture no longer need be extruded from the floor; it can appear instantly as a pattern formed out of the "air" robots. Non-Fog objects can float around at will the way you did in your "car". But what's more, your surroundings can take on the appearance, and feel, of any other environment they can communicate with. Say you want to visit a friend; you both set your houses to an identical pattern. Then a Fog replica of him appears in your house, and one of you appears in his. The "air" fog around you can measure your actions so your simulacrum copies them exactly.

       The pattern you both set your houses to could be anything, including a computer-generated illusion. In this way, Utility Fog can act as a transparent interface between "cyberspace" and physical reality. Tech Specs Active, polymorphic material ("Utility Fog") can be designed as a conglomeration of 100-micron robotic cells ("foglets"). Such robots could be built with the techniques of molecular nanotechnology (see Drexler, "Nanosystems", Wiley, 1992). Using designs from that source, controllers with processing capabilities of 1000 MIPS per cubic micron, and electric motors with power densities of one milliwatt per cubic micron are assumed.



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