by George Heymann

Self-sculpting sand

“New algorithms could enable heaps of ‘smart sand’ that can assume any shape, allowing spontaneous formation of new tools or duplication of broken mechanical parts.”

by Larry Hardesty

MIT News Office

To test their algorithm, the researchers designed and built a system of 'smart pebbles' — cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with processors and magnets built in.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Imagine that you have a big box of sand in which you bury a tiny model of a footstool. A few seconds later, you reach into the box and pull out a full-size footstool: The sand has assembled itself into a large-scale replica of the model.

That may sound like a scene from a Harry Potter novel, but it’s the vision animating a research project at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May — the world’s premier robotics conference — DRL researchers will present a paper describing algorithms that could enable such “smart sand.” They also describe experiments in which they tested the algorithms on somewhat larger particles — cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets on four of their sides.
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Researchers link patterns seen in spider silk, melodies

Analogy could help engineers develop materials that make use of repeating patterns.

By Denise Brehm, Civil and Environmental Engineering

MIT News Office

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Using a new mathematical methodology, researchers at MIT have created a scientifically rigorous analogy that shows the similarities between the physical structure of spider silk and the sonic structure of a melody, proving that the structure of each relates to its function in an equivalent way.

The step-by-step comparison begins with the primary building blocks of each item — an amino acid and a sound wave — and moves up to the level of a beta sheet nanocomposite (the secondary structure of a protein consisting of repeated hierarchical patterns) and a musical riff (a repeated pattern of notes or chords). The study explains that structural patterns are directly related to the functional properties of lightweight strength in the spider silk and, in the riff, sonic tension that creates an emotional response in the listener.

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Seeing through walls

Researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Lab have developed new radar technology that provides real-time video of what’s going on behind solid walls.

The front of the phased array radar system developed by researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, which sends and receives signals of movement behind solid concrete walls. Photo provided by the researchers

by Emily Finn

Courtesy of MIT News Office

The ability to see through walls is no longer the stuff of science fiction, thanks to new radar technology developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Much as humans and other animals see via waves of visible light that bounce off objects and then strike our eyes’ retinas, radar “sees” by sending out radio waves that bounce off targets and return to the radar’s receivers. But just as light can’t pass through solid objects in quantities large enough for the eye to detect, it’s hard to build radar that can penetrate walls well enough to show what’s happening behind. Now, Lincoln Lab researchers have built a system that can see through walls from some distance away, giving an instantaneous picture of the activity on the other side.

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Printing off the paper

by David L. Chandler

MIT News Office

Imagine being able to “print” an entire house. Or a four-course dinner. Or a complete mechanical device such as a cuckoo clock, fully assembled and ready to run. Or a printer capable of printing … yet another printer?

These are no longer sci-fi flights of fancy. Rather, they are all real (though very early-stage) research projects underway at MIT, and just a few ways the Institute is pushing forward the boundaries of a technology it helped pioneer nearly two decades ago. A flurry of media stories this year have touted three-dimensional printing — or “3DP” — as the vanguard of a revolution in the way goods are produced, one that could potentially usher in a new era of “mass customization.”

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Portable, super-high-resolution 3-D imaging

Larry Hardesty

MIT News Office

By combining a clever physical interface with computer-vision algorithms, researchers in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have created a simple, portable imaging system that can achieve resolutions previously possible only with large and expensive lab equipment. The device could provide manufacturers with a way to inspect products too large to fit under a microscope and could also have applications in medicine, forensics and biometrics.

The heart of the system, dubbed GelSight, is a slab of transparent, synthetic rubber, one of whose sides is coated with a paint containing tiny flecks of metal. When pressed against the surface of an object, the paint-coated side of the slab deforms. Cameras mounted on the other side of the slab photograph the results, and computer-vision algorithms analyze the images.

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Computer learns language by playing games

by Larry Hardesty

MIT News Office

Computers are great at treating words as data: Word-processing programs let you rearrange and format text however you like, and search engines can quickly find a word anywhere on the Web. But what would it mean for a computer to actually understand the meaning of a sentence written in ordinary English — or French, or Urdu, or Mandarin?

One test might be whether the computer could analyze and follow a set of instructions for an unfamiliar task. And indeed, in the last few years, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have begun designing machine-learning systems that do exactly that, with surprisingly good results.

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