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I'll start by describing the units from which this machine
would be built.
There is a cube about a fifth of a millimetre on a side. Its
surfaces are touch-sensitive and can change colour
corresponding to the RGB value of an unsigned three-byte
integer stored within it. This value is read-write.
cube also stores a thirty-two bit number used to identify
itself and a separate three-byte number, both initially
read-only but which can be set to read-write. It also
contains a rechargeable battery, a photocell, a CPU, and a
radio receiver and transmitter. It can be charged by
induction and communicates with other units like it using
radio signals. It is also waterproof.
On receiving a special "reset" signal, each unit attempts to
find other units nearby. They then count each other and
transmit and receive their identifying values, looking for
values which differ from their own identifiers by one. If
they find none, they increment or decrement their values
to the closest identifier which can be found. This enables
them to allocate themselves as a block of RAM. They then
find the largest block of ascending identifiers and look for
a unique twenty-four bit number which indicates the start
of system software, check that it's long enough to contain
all of it, and start to execute it. This begins the boot
Photocells enable the units to identify themselves as
visible or invisible to the outside world. Receivers and
transmitters mean the units can communicate with each
other for processing purposes or, in concert, form a
wireless link with a network or peripherals.
The units are generally set inside a water-soluble adhesive
matrix, and there are up to around four billion of them.
They organise themselves as a computer whose storage
and processing capabilities depends on how many of them
there are, which they can count. One configuration is as a
large cuboidal slab, like a tablet PC. This computer
(clearly its architecture is not like that of a PC in the
contemporary sense of the word) is able to display
anywhere on its surface, store data in the read-only state
of the storage if set, is touch-sensitive, can interact with
a network and wireless devices, has a camera capability,
particularly if a drop of water or other lens is placed
somewhere on its surface, and could probably pick up
sounds. It would be able to produce sound via radio
Also, it can be "dissolved" in water. On being placed in
water, it disintegrates as the adhesive goes into solution.
The computer solution can then be separated into a
number of smaller parts and recrystallised by evaporation
to form smaller devices with lower specifications. It can
also be broken into parts and continue to function in the
same way, and be formed into different shapes, painted
on surfaces and so forth.
I imagine it working in a similar way to cellular automata.
Modular neural network
shameless self promotion [xaviergisz, Jan 24 2012]
||I really like the idea of a self-organising set of "smart-dust" (see link later) and think it's all 'doable' with the exception of the bit you missed out which was to allow them to 'crystallise' or to form themselves into any kind of recognisable shape. Which may not be necessary, maybe you could just get out a rolling-pin and spread-out a glob of these things on a worksurface and prop it up to watch tv.
||But most of all, I'd be worried about people accidentally washing too many smart particles down the sink and ending up with a supercomputer emerging from the sewers! It'd be a great plotline for a story.
||I like this. I'm not sure what it would be good
at/for, but I like it.
||A thought on the crystallization process. Magnets
are always good and, if a pattern of north/south
poles could be arranged to appear on each face,
then these things would self-assemble into cubical
||Actually hang on, I might post that...
||I think the most difficult bit would be the
architecture- if you're dissolving it like this, you
have to be able to build a coherent operating
system via a random assortment of three-byte
numbers, arranged with random interconnects and
random dispersal throughout the memory space.
||I can think of a few solutions, but they all require
either special modules, extremely controlled
starting conditions in terms of module mixes, or
outside equipment to put the tablet together.
||You also have the problem of losing all non-backed-
up files if you compute in a damp room.
||If it's running a bit slowly, could you add FLOPS by