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"I do think there is a link in that in both cases, writing fiction or writing a computer program, at any given moment you're focusing on a very specific and particular thing—one word, one line of code, whatever."
- Neal Stephenson

Robot Cells (Crystal-Shaped Modules)  
  Minute dodecahedral units that could combine into different shapes to become full robots.  

Robots today are build of distinct, single-purpose units - motors, power source, protective skin, hinges or other joints - and so forth. In the book, a radically new notion for building a robot is uncovered.

"At ten power, the surface is undifferentiated. Increasing magnification now. Granularity becoming evident. There seems to be a regular pattern. Pattern resolving now into hexagonal planar surfaces. Maximum magnification." The robot paused for a fraction of a second. "The surface appears to consist of twelve-sided solids in close association..."

[Derec] touched the connector to the stump end of the Supervisor arm, and it clung there as though it belonged... Almost instantly, the disembodied Supervisor arm slowly began to flex. "Look at the joint," Derec demanded. "Tell me what’s happening."

"The changes are taking place more quickly than my scan rate allows me to observe," the robot said. "However, I infer that the dodecahedrons are undergoing some type of directed rearrangement."

"Flowing into a new shape. The material of the arm is transforming itself."

"Those descriptors are imprecise but consistent with my observations. The technical term for such reorganization is morphallaxis."

Derec felt for his chair and sat down shakily. The Supervisors had been built out of billions of tiny crystalshaped modules-a cellular structure. Each had to contain kilometers of circuit connections, megabytes of programming. It was the cells that were the robots. The robots were more like organisms.

What a feat of engineering they represented - the essence of a robot in a package a few microns diameter. Properly programmed, they could take on any shape. A Supervisor was an infinity of specialized forms held within one generalized package.

From Isaac Asimov's Odyssey : Robot City: Book1, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell.
Published by Pocket i-Books in 1987
Additional resources -

The earliest version of this idea that I know about is the living metal cubes from the 1920 story The Metal Monster by Abraham Merritt.

Thanks to Dan Groves for contributing this item.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Isaac Asimov's Odyssey : Robot City: Book1
  More Ideas and Technology by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
  Tech news articles related to Isaac Asimov's Odyssey : Robot City: Book1
  Tech news articles related to works by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

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