How scientists engineered a material that can 'think' and 'sense' — The Blueprint

Ryan Harne tells us how he and his team did it, what they’re going to do with it, and why it matters.
Alice Cooke
Ryan Harne and his team created a material that can "think".
Ryan Harne and his team created a material that can "think".

Interesting Engineering.

  • The team found that the way to create scalable intelligence in materials was to emulate the mathematics of integrated circuits.
  • “A material could autonomously perform functions in an environment where traditional robotics could be unnecessarily expensive, costly, or wasteful” – Harne.
  • Next, Harne wants to animate inanimate matter so that we can manufacture and produce "living" materials that help people and can be recycled at their end-of-life.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

Ryan Harne, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, led the team in association with the U.S. Air Force that harnessed mechanical information processing and integrated it into an engineered material that can “think.”

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“We have created the first example of an engineering material that can simultaneously sense, think and act upon mechanical stress, without requiring additional circuits to process such signals,” says Harne.

But what do they intend to do with it?

At the moment, Harne says it has commercial, defense, and industrial uses. His team is also working to construct a working demo of an autonomous material that can mechanically react against forces acting on it, demonstrating a fundamental form of intelligence without any traditional “computer” or “brain” present in the material system.

The soft polymer material can receive digital strings of information that are then processed, resulting in new sequences of digital information that can control reactions.

The research team found that "nearly any material" available to humankind can be used to create integrated circuits capable of carrying out computing operations.

To find out what difference this material might make – and how it takes us one step closer to animating inanimate matter – IE caught up with Harne for an exclusive interview.

How scientists engineered a material that can 'think' and 'sense' — The Blueprint
Penn State researchers have demonstrated the material.

Interesting Engineering: What prompted this research in the first place?

Ryan Harne: Like many people, I am fascinated by the dreaming that takes place in science fiction books, movies, and TV. We often overlook it in media that we watch, but I have always been interested by the idea that inanimate matter could "live". Think of Sally from Cars or the toys in Toy Story.

And in recent years, I thought it was interesting that scientists have realized almost all of the functions that constitute lifeforms in purely engineered materials: sensor materials, actuator materials, energy processing materials.

But no one had created a "thinking" function in materials before. So, a handful of years ago, I started putting my energy into pursuing strategies that may lead to a realization of a material that can think and process information.

It turns out that emulating conventional integrated circuits (and the math behind them) was the way to do it. Now that we have all of the basic elements of life in inanimate matter, I am pursuing the goal of animating inanimate matter so that we can manufacture and produce "living" materials that help people and can be recycled at their end-of-life.

Did you accomplish what you set out to achieve?

In terms of making a material that can think, absolutely. We found that the way to create scalable intelligence in materials was to emulate the mathematics of integrated circuits. And we succeeded in this objective through our inspiration of the methods described by Claude Shannon, decades before modern integrated circuits were fabricated.

Shannon wrote that any integrated circuit could be fashioned by realizing the mathematical principles of computing in simple switching circuits.

The logic gates materials we made in 2021 (published in Nature Communications) were in fact simple switching circuits. When we broke them down to their switching principles, we realized they were the embodiments of what Shannon wrote about (but never made).

So, we used Shannon's words as a primer to help guide us to make integrated circuits in engineered materials. It is an almost magical realization of scientific discovery directly guided by a scientist who postulated a principle almost a century before we started our work.

Are there any other aims to the work that you have yet to achieve?

We continue to pursue our longer-term goal of establishing a method to animate inanimate matter.

What uses do you think this material might have?

What we created has many commercial, defense, and industrial uses. We are currently working to construct a working demo of an autonomous material that can mechanically react against forces (weights) acting on it, demonstrating a fundamental form of intelligence without any traditional "computer" or "brain" present in the material system. This would remain a pre-commercial demonstration, but would exemplify what is possible by closing the loop.

How long do you think it might take for that to happen?

We'll probably publish the aforementioned work next year.

What barriers stand in the way of you making the findings commercially available?

To translate our discoveries to commercial outlets, we would want to identify low-hanging fruit opportunities where a material could autonomously perform functions in an environment where traditional robotics could be unnecessarily expensive, costly, or wasteful.

My guess is that we'll find an application that involves large-scale production, where a low-cost multi-material intelligent system with a clearly defined capability is substantially less in cost and material usage than a robot with excessive functionality.

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Quickfire questions

Who or what inspires you?

Much like Ockham's razor, I am inspired by a tenet of engineering that the simplest solution is often the best one.

This is not a shun on innovation. Rather, I find it inspiring when we can create engineering solutions that are simple to understand, simple to use, and significant in their positive impact for people.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I am driven to lead people to discovery. In any context. In any workspace. The act of sharing ways to question and think, to share methods used for discovery, and tactics to keep focus on long-term goals brings me great joy and enthusiasm to start and conclude each day.

What makes you smile?

My wife. Driving (I sincerely enjoy the dynamics of driving on road and track).

What is your greatest achievement to date?

My greatest achievement to date is that I am never satisfied, never settled, and that I've remained this stubbornly focused on perpetual professional and personal growth for 30-some years.

What is your biggest regret?

Regret is unproductive. We all have learning experiences when things don't go our way. Live, learn and repeat.

What would you say to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

You will always be your best cheerleader. Every day, establish your objectives and keep them aimed towards your longer term goals. Then, tell yourself: "I can do it". Because you can.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Laugh more, longer, and with others. It preserves the youth in us.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.