Excerpt from Active Matter by Skylar Tibbits

Posted on October 12, 2017 by Sharon Lacey

Active Matter (MIT Press 2017), edited by Skylar Tibbits, Assistant Professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture at MIT and the Founder and Codirector of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, is an essential guide to a field that could shape the future of design. The following excerpt is from Tibbits’s introduction to the book.


If over the past half-century we have experienced a software and hardware revolution, we are now experiencing a true materials revolution. We can now sense, compute, and actuate with materials alone, just as one could previously with software and hardware platforms. It is becoming increasingly clear that materials are a platform for turning digital information into physical performance and functionality. If yesterday we programmed computers and machines, today we program matter itself.

How did active matter emerge? We could go back to the history of computing with Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, or even the Jacquard loom as the implementation of mechanical computing for industrial production with a true material output. Or perhaps we could emphasize Turing, von Neumann, or any of the other incredibly important figures in computing. But it seems to make more sense to start at the beginning of the “digital” and how that relates to the physical. In 1937, Claude Shannon produced what has been described as one of the most influential master’s theses of all time, in which he introduced the concept of Boolean logic for relays, digital logic eventually becoming the foundation of digital communication, electronics, and information theory. Since the subsequent invention of the transistor in 1947 (which has a strikingly material and “low-tech” physical presence), we have seen rapid developments in software and hardware technologies that introduced unprecedented changes across every discipline and industry and made digital computing ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

From Ivan Sutherland’s first computer-aided design (CAD) tool in 1963 and the first computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine demonstrated by MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1952 to more contemporary software and fabrication platforms, we have become able to design, analyze, and physically fabricate in ways that were previously unimaginable. These new capabilities for computational design and fabrication have sparked a renaissance in the development of materials and performance.

As we’ve seen, the boom in material capabilities is visible in recent developments across many disciplines. The life sciences are making rapid advances with DNA sequencing and synthesis, genetic modification tools such as CRISPR, DNA computing, microbiome research, developments in tissue engineering, and the growing field of synthetic biology. New biomaterials, synthetic biofunctionality, DNA self-assembly, drug delivery mechanisms, and bioprinting are just a few of the recent capabilities to emerge. Materials science is similarly experiencing its own bustle of activity, from the discovery of graphene in 2010 to carbon nanotubes, directed self-assembly for material formation, granular jammable matter, invisibility cloaking, and a great deal more. At the macro scale we are seeing similar shifts. Some of the recent large-scale advances include multimaterial printing with metal/ceramic/glass/rubber/foams, printable electronics, 4D printing for customizable smart materials, reversible concrete-like structures with granular jamming, even building-scale automated fabrication, printable wood, programmable carbon fiber, active textiles, and many others. As new computational and digital fabrication processes are emerging, novel material capabilities have become available.

In 2007 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated a program called “Programmable Matter.” Programmable matter is generally understood as a material that has the ability to perform information processing much like digital electronics. The DARPA program included researchers from many universities and disciplines (many of whom are included in this book). With a few exceptions, the research fell under the category of reconfigurable microrobotics, or modular robotics: researchers developed smaller- and smaller-scale robotic modules with embedded electronics, power, actuation, sensing, and communication that would enable a variety of physical transformations and other behaviors. In somewhat traditional DARPA fashion, this program was ahead of its time. The vision was clear, but the implementation at that point was far from the dream of programming matter in an elegant and seamless way. Small robots became the stand-in for “matter,” but they were not just materials; they were accumulations of software and hardware devices. The sum was perhaps not yet more than its parts. However, the vision of programmable matter laid the groundwork for today’s active matter.

Since this program, a number of developments in materials science, synthetic biology, and other domains have rapidly emerged that I believe have enabled a realization of programmable matter and more. Now, materials can not only be programmed to compute, but can physically transform and actively self-assemble into larger aggregations. These materials aren’t modules that have chips and computers or batteries in them like their predecessors; these new materials are purely material. In this sense, active matter is more than just programming matter; it is about combining programmability, transformation/adaptation, and assembly. Active matter is about matter that is literally active.

One might ask, How does active matter relate to smart materials? As an analogy, in the history of computing we have transformed the first calculators and single-function computers into today’s general-purpose, programmable machines. Similarly, the field of active matter aims to create general-purpose, programmable, and physically active materials. “Smart materials” or shape-memory materials also have the ability to change their property in a predetermined manner. However, active matter goes beyond today’s smart materials that are only available in predetermined shapes, sizes, properties, and niche applications. Although smart materials and active matter both transform based on external input, active matter offers the freedom to design and create customized materials with unique functionality to sense, actuate, assemble, or compute. Active matter makes it possible to make any material a smart material.

If we think about it, matter has always been active, at least at a molecular level, yet our relationship with matter has traditionally been passive; at most, we have simply guided the growth and behavior of natural materials like bacteria, living cells, crystals, or wood. Or conversely, we have produced synthetic materials with fixed shapes and sizes to form all sorts of plasticized products—sculpting matter, rather than creating new types of matter or reprogramming its fundamental behavior. We could compare our traditional relationship with materials to that of breeding animals or plants: we didn’t change the fundamental properties or capabilities of the medium, rather we recombined species in a “black box” type of way to guide the formation of useful behaviors or traits. Our new model of programming matter can be seen in CRISPR, or synthetic biology and DNA computing, where we can fundamentally change the structure, functionality, and information embedded within the medium to create new desired traits from the inside out.

A more surface-level understanding of the physical world tends to see materials as inert and slaves to our hammer and nail. Wood, a beautifully anisotropic and information-rich material, is turned into standardized lumber, as if it were a homogeneous material like plastic. However, we can redefine our relationship with matter. We can use the properties of the digital world now embedded in the physical world like logic, reprogrammability, reconfiguration, error correction, and assembly/disassembly. Or similar properties from the natural world can now be embedded in the synthetic world, like growth, repair, mutation, replication. These principles are now fundamentally available to read/write within matter itself.

How does the shift to active matter influence materials research? How will it create future products and industrial applications? What tools and design processes do we need to invent, augment, create, and discover new materials today? What are the galvanizing roles that industry, government, academia, and public institutions can play to catalyze and nurture the field of active matter? This book aims to address some of these questions by bringing together researchers, scholars, practitioners, artists, and designers, providing unique perspectives, breakthroughs in research, evocative imagery, and emerging industrial applications of active matter.

This book is organized by scale from smallest to largest, from nano to micro to planetary scale. The contributors’ work varies by discipline and focus, yet they work together to stitch a comprehensive view of the emerging field of active matter, collectively telling the story of active matter, its details, visions, nuances, capabilities, pitfalls, and challenges ahead. Using scale to organize Active Matter allows interdisciplinary relationships and common themes/techniques/tools to emerge. This approach aims to highlight the connections and differences in research from technically or conceptually similar principles that can be applied across many fields of study. Grouping by scale makes visible the potential for insights and advances to travel laterally across the disciplines. The field is emerging literally from the bottom up, and this book attempts to provide the underlying logic, connectivity, and a perspective on the future direction of active matter.