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Daniela Rus's Robotic Sand

Grains of Sand That Think
A cluster of Rus's pebble-size robots
A cluster of Rus's pebble-size robotsPhotograph by Jesse Burke for Bloomberg Businessweek

History holds lessons, even for those designing futuristic robots. Daniela Rus, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found inspiration in Michelangelo’s statue of David. “David came out of the marble, and we thought we could also make things appear out of a block,” she says.

That germ of an idea inspired Rus, a 2002 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, to begin work on a project that will eventually allow someone to reach into a bag of sand and pull out any device or structure imaginable. It’s like Harry Potter meets The Matrix, since the “bag of sand” is actually a collection of tiny robots. The robots can sense their neighbors, receive commands, and attach to each other to form objects.