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"...the space defense initiative drove the USSR bankrupt, and it originated at my house in Tarzana."
- Larry Niven

Living Metal Cubes  
  Tiny metal cubes and pyramids that work together to create larger shapes.  

Explorers discover amazing cubes and pyramids that self-organized to build complex shapes "as though a child should build from nursery blocks a fantastic shape which abruptly is filled with throbbing life."

I reached down and picked up one of the pyramids. It seemed to cling to the rock; it was with effort that I wrenched it away. It gave to the touch a slight sensation of warmth—how can I describe it?—a warmth that was living.

I weighed it in my hand. It was oddly heavy, twice the weight, I should say, of platinum. I drew out a glass and examined it. Decidedly the pyramid was metallic, but of finest, almost silken texture—and I could not place it among any of the known metals. It certainly was none I had ever seen; yet it was as certainly metal. It was striated—slender filaments radiating from tiny, dully lustrous points within the polished surface.

And suddenly I had the weird feeling that each of these points was an eye, peering up at me, scrutinizing me...

Faster the cubes moved; faster the circle revolved; the pyramids raised themselves, stood bolt upright on their square bases; the six rolling spheres touched them, joined the spinning, and with sleight-of-hand suddenness the ring drew together; its units coalesced, cubes and pyramids and globes threading with a curious suggestion of ferment.

With the same startling abruptness there stood erect, where but a moment before they had seethed, a little figure, grotesque; a weirdly humorous, a vaguely terrifying foot-high shape, squared and angled and pointed and ANIMATE—as though a child should build from nursery blocks a fantastic shape which abruptly is filled with throbbing life.

Again the sibilant rustling—and cubes and pyramids and spheres were gone.

"Goodwin!" he whispered. "What—what were they?"

"Metal," I said—it was the only word to which my whirling mind could cling—"metal—"

"Metal!" he echoed. "These things metal? Metal—ALIVE AND THINKING!"

"...They were such LITTLE THINGS," muttered Drake. "Such little things—bits of metal—little globes and pyramids and cubes—just little THINGS..."

"Bits of metal"—Dick's gaze sought mine, held it—"and they looked for each other, they worked with each other—THINKINGLY, CONSCIOUSLY—they were deliberate, purposeful—little things—and with the force of a score of dynamos—living, THINKING—"

But that being metal, they had moved consciously, thoughtfully, deliberately.

They were metal things with—MINDS!

From The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt.
Published by Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1920
Additional resources -

Compare to Stanislaw Lem, who wrote about a shape-forming swarm of tiny metal particles in his 1954 novel The Invincible. See also the Robot Cells (Crystal-Shaped Modules) from 1987 work by Michael P. Kube-McDowell.

Thanks to Blue Monkey for pointing this item out.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Metal Monster
  More Ideas and Technology by Abraham Merritt
  Tech news articles related to The Metal Monster
  Tech news articles related to works by Abraham Merritt

Living Metal Cubes-related news articles:
  - Cheap Microrobot Swarms
  - MIT's Smart Pebbles Duplicate 3D Shapes
  - M-Block Modular Robots Assemble Themselves

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Why Not Nurse Grandma With A Robot?
Should Robots Have Civil Rights?
Toshiba's Lifelike Communication Android
Most Advanced Robotic Hand?

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