Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a series of tiny, motorized robots that they think could lead to shape-shifting machines that change their structure to meet the task at hand. Dubbed "milli-moteins," the robots consist of centimeter-long modules that connect and change shape using an MIT-developed magnetic motor. They're electropermanent — after taking a particular shape, the device can hold it without requiring additional power — making the milli-moteins ideal building blocks for all kinds of different creations.

The DARPA-funded development follows a paper published last year that proved it possible to build any three-dimensional object simply by folding a string of matter into different shapes. It's a concept borrowed from nature, where proteins link together to form various organic shapes. Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, says that researchers are considering milli-moteins of various size, ranging from molecular "nanoassemblers" to human-sized strings of them. Ultimately, says researcher Ara Knaian, the goal is to create transforming robots that are "small, cheap, durable, and strong" — but in the meantime, the team is working to improve the robots' strength so they they can support more than a single module.