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MIT's "M-Blocks" Could Be The First Step Towards A Robot Uprising

Ladies and Gentlemen, you may now add "self-constructing machines" to your list of possible blunders mankind might wipe itself out with. The folks over at MIT last month unveiled a new technology known as the M-Block. These tiny, modular cubes - surprisingly simple in design - fit in the palm of your hand. They can connect to one another to form a wide variety of different shapes and objects.

They do this through the use of embedded, powerful magnets which are embedded into their every edge and face. When the magnet on one cube connects with the magnet on another, they stick to one another. The cubes - which have no external moving parts - can also jump over one another and move on their own, through the use of an internal flywheel, which MIT news explained "can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute. When the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube."

This functionality, coupled with the design of the cubes, allows them to make autonomous, non-static changes. In older modular bots could be stopped straight in the middle of configuration, with only a few particular designs available for selection. Not so with the M-Blocks. 

"There's a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air," explained Postdoctorate Kyle Gilpin. "You are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That's something that's totally unique to this system." 

This is a technology which was, until recently, thought to strictly reside in the realm of science fiction.

"It's one of those things the modular robotics community has been trying to do for a long time," explained Daniela Rus, the MIT robotics professor responsible for overseeing the project. "We just needed a creative insight and someone who was passionate enough to keep coming at it, despite being discouraged." 

Rus herself initially dismissed the idea when one of her students approached her back in 2011 with the desire to work on the project. She told the student, John Romanishin, that his idea was impossible. Not to be dissuaded, Romanishin set out to prove her wrong, and now works as a research scientist in the MIT's Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Laboratory. 

As if this new technology isn't innovative (and terrifying) enough already, the team is already looking forward to making things even more advanced. 

"We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder, or a desk, on demand," said Romanishin. Of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg. Sounding very much like a Bond villain in the process, Romanishin explained that his team eventually hopes to miniaturize the cubes. 

Ultimately, Romanishin wants to see the M-Blocks developed into "hordes of swarming microbots that can self-assemble, like the 'liquid steel' androids in the movie Terminator 2...the simplicty of the cubes' design makes miniaturization promising.

In other words...office furniture today, terrifyingly powerful robot overlords tomorrow. Lovely, right?