Smart Matter

John Gilbert

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center


Smart Matter is one of Xerox PARC's three cross-laboratory research themes. Smart Matter aims to exploit trends of miniaturization and integration of both computer hardware and micromechanical systems to build new kinds of machines. The idea is to trade computation (which is getting cheaper very fast) for physical or mechanical complexity. Some of its tenets are:

As a research area, Smart Matter explores the "white spaces" among a wide range of disciplines: distributed computing, active control, robotics, software engineering, wireless communication, low-power electronics, smart materials, and MEMS. In this talk I'll give an overview of some of the Smart Matter projects at PARC, including an "active surface" air-jet paper mover, with batch fabricated valves; a distributed modular robot; and "smart matter machine diagnostics".

John Gilbert is a Principal Scientist and Manager of the Computation and Matter Area in the Systems and Practices Laboratory at Xerox PARC. The Area's charter is to connect computer science and information technology with smart matter and systemic MEMS. Its research includes projects in PCB-based MEMS for smart surfaces, data mining for machine diagnostics, and modular distributed robotics.

Gilbert received his PhD in Computer Science at Stanford in 1981. From 1981 to 1988 he was Assistant and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Cornell, where he was an NSF Presidential Young Investigator. In 1988 he joined Xerox PARC, where he has performed and directed research in parallel computing, computational geometry, languages and compilers for high-performance computing, and mathematical algorithms and software. Gilbert developed the sparse matrix solvers used in the commercial Matlab engineering environment; he is also the author of about 50 technical papers and a number of patents.

His web page is at and he can be contacted at

Edited by Leonidas Guibas