The rise of intelligent matter: Interdisciplinary team publishes insights, in the ’Nature’ journal, into a promising area of research

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Intelligent matter is assembled from individual, nano-scaled components which, w

Intelligent matter is assembled from individual, nano-scaled components which, when they act together, possess intelligent skills. © Corinna Kaspar

Can we make matter intelligent? This is a question being studied by an interdisciplinary team in Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1459 "Intelligent matter: From responsive to adaptive nanosystems". In a perspective published in the latest issue of the "Nature" journal, scientists from the Universities of Münster and Twente - representing the SFB 1459 - describe the opportunities which could present themselves through intelligent matter. In a guest article for Münster University, Corinna Kaspar (PhD candidate in Physics and first author of the "Nature" article) and physicist Wolfram Pernice provide insights into their research and its significance on this occasion.

Imagine if the pullover you’re wearing automatically adapted itself to the way you’re feeling. In other words, it warmed you if you were shivering, or cooled you down if you were sitting in the sun and sweating - and all without you lifting a finger. This means that the pullover would firstly have to learn to recognize your discomfort, and secondly alter its properties so as to counter this discomfort. Creativity knows no bounds and we can imagine other functionalities of a pullover, with varying degrees of complexity, such as drying fast or cushioning a fall. But how can such a pullover be created? What energy would it need? And where would it get it from? It soon becomes clear that complex calculations and a suitable energy source would be necessary to fulfil all these functions.

In contrast, nature produces such fascinating functionalities apparently effortlessly and on a daily basis. One counterpart to the pullover, for example, is the largest human organ - our skin. The skin protects us from all sorts of influences in our surroundings such as radiation, pressure, friction and the incursion of pathogens. It can even heal itself after an injury. It also provides protection from heat loss and, at the same time, is able to cool us down by secreting sweat.

Inspiration from the human brain

Again and again, the human brain, the basic component for our intelligence, is a source of particular fascination and inspiration for researchers. Countless parallel processes between approximately 100 billion neurones in the brain result in enormous computing power - with a very low energy consumption of only about 20 watts. In particular, this massive parallel processing supports cognitive skills in which we far surpass conventional computers. For example, we recognize the familiar face of a friend within milliseconds, while a computer needs far more time for such tasks. Inspired by this superiority, unconventional computing paradigms are being developed more and more frequently which imitate the way the brain functions - as a means of creating artificial, intelligent systems for cognitive tasks.

But what is intelligence, actually? In the psychological sense, intelligence is understood as the ability to adapt in changing surroundings and to learn from past events. As far as matter is concerned, we define intelligence very similarly. Synthetically produced matter is intelligent if it interacts with its surroundings and receives, and reacts to, impulses. In this, matter can process feedback, store information as experience and learn from the past. Whether matter is capable of perception is a moot point - although it doesn’t need to do so for our definition of intelligence.

Intelligent behaviour of synthetic matter

The central question that presents itself to us is: how can intelligence be created in synthetic matter, and what components are necessary for this? To this end, we identified four necessary units which have key functional elements and which have to work together. Firstly, a sensor element is necessary so that the matter can register impulses and information from its surroundings, as well as receive feedback signals. As a response to external stimuli, synthetic matter can change its physical properties - for example, its shape or stability. For this purpose, an actor is needed. Information received is stored as knowledge in a storage element so that it can be retrieved at a later stage. This "power of recall" is indispensable for any learning process. Finally, these three elements need to be able to communicate with one another, for which a network consisting of signalling pathways is necessary.

Four key functional elements have to work together

All four of these key functional elements have to work together in order to create intelligent skills. Now, let us just imagine that these interlinked elements can be shrunk to nano-level, so that they can be seen as one entity - or piece of matter. This makes integration in a system possible, as a result of which computing processes can be implemented in the matter itself. In doing so, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that there is a central processing unit which controls and directs everything - such as we know from conventional computers or robots, for example. Rather, the matter itself is used to compute in a decentralized way. As a result, countless processes can run in parallel, as in the human brain, which makes an enormous amount of data processing possible - such as would be necessary for our "intelligent pullover", for example.

Original publication

Corinna Kaspar, Bart Jan Ravoo, Wilfred G. van der Wiel, Seraphine V. Wegner and Wolfram H. P. Pernice (2021): The Rise of Intelligent Matter. Nature 594, 345-355 (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03453-y

Collaborative Research Centre 1459

What’s needed to produce intelligent matter is interdisciplinary collaboration from the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Materials Science and Biology. 26 working groups from the University of Münster, the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Biomedicine and the University of Twente are working together in Collaborative Research Centre 1459 to realize this project. Different classes of material are being examined: molecules, soft materials such as polymers, and solids. New chemical and physical concepts are also being drawn up. The aim is to open up entirely new possibilities and make matter intelligent.

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