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San Francisco Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 06:45 GMT
Snakes, spiders, cups and hammers
By Pallab Ghosh in San Francisco

A few kilometres outside of San Francisco, on top of Cayottee Hill, sits the birthplace of the personal computer.

The Xerox Parc nestles unobtrusively in the lush, North Californian countryside. It was here in the 1970s that a small group of slightly degenerate but startlingly bright hippies helped accelerate the move from gargantuan, punch card-eating hulks into the PCs of today.

The Polybot
The morphs and climbs
Walk into Rich Gould's office and you can still hear the classic tunes - even California Dreaming by the Mamas and Papas.

Gould used to design toys for Matell. Now, he is developing the next generation of computers for Xerox.

I want computers to disappear, he says, as he bounces around on a beanbag. That might sound a rather strange aim for the head of a computer research division, but what Gould is really talking about is making computers invisible.

Earthquake rescue

They would be incorporated into everyday objects in a way that we would not realise they were there.

Your refrigerator, your car, even your shirt and shoes will have computers in them. They will speak to each other, they will monitor the world and they will change and react to the things around them.

Among the first of these new robot species is a snake-like machine that slithers across a tabletop. The Polybot, as it is known, is made up of a dozen or so 5-centimetre square cubes joined together like Lego play bricks.

But unlike Lego, these cubes can reassemble themselves. The Polybot can morph into different shapes depending on the size of the obstacles over which it must climb. As it arrives at some rougher terrain, it stops, Polybot creator Dave Duff explains.

The robot spider
The robot spider

The two ends bend around and meet in the middle where they attach to the centre point. And then it breaks these two loops and stands up as a four-legged spider.

There is nothing sinister though about Dave's robot spiders. They could be very friendly, especially if you are caught in an earthquake-collapsed building.

Cup or hammer

When it arrives at the rubble of a building, the robot will transition either into the snake or the spider to work its way into the building. Then it would use its onboard sensors to map out the interior cavities and search for survivors. And when it arrived at a person, the Polybot would shore up the structures around them.

Colleague Mark Yim is taking the morphing idea to another extreme by trying to program thousands of super-small computers so that they can clump together and rearrange themselves into any shape at all.

They might form a big blob initially and then, if you needed to have a drink, they could reshape themselves into the form of a cup, and you could go and fill it up with tea. Or if you needed a hammer, this cup could then change its shape into a hammer.

If this all sounds a bit pie in the sky, then remember that is precisely what they thought of the idea of a small personal computer all those years ago.

Pallab Ghosh is in California to report from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Links to more San Francisco stories are at the foot of the page.

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