Anyway, imagine a building constructed of such programmable matter. Or a suit of clothing. Or an implantable prosthetic skeleton. Wellstone provides more than simple access to "impossible" physical states; it provides the ability to change states simply by shuffling electrons around. Electronic devices built of wellstone could use the quantum dot arrays themselves as computing elements, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "smart materials." They could also lay out - and instantly rearrange - conventional circuit traces with the amazing power of changing from conductor to semiconductor to superconductor to insulator. To tunable laser, sure, or tunable magnet. To window or mirror or self-optimizing solar collector.
I imagine a gingerbread cottage in the woods, its walls and roof a patchwork of shifting colors. Sunlight filters through the forest canopy, its rays falling on moving squares of gold or chrome, or vanishing into superabsorber blackness. Parts of the cottage glow a malevolent red, or slice between the trees with occasional blasts of laser. I notice a window, framed in silver, inching its way along the walls. It oozes around a corner, and suddenly I can see the inside of the house: a couch, a coffee table, a pair of fuzzy slippers. And wearing the slippers, on the couch, a withered old lady in sweatpants. Not a witch, no - this is my mother. She lives here. It's a perfectly ordinary home, with a car in the driveway and a pink flamingo on the lawn.
This kind of dramatic and instantaneous effect is serious Clarke's law mojo - virtually indistinguishable from magic. It will probably be 10 to 20 years before the first serious programmable-matter chip is built, and another 20 before anything like wellstone becomes anything like possible. From there, it will take still more time before the technology diffuses into mainstream society. But when it does - even if it's only a fraction as capable as I've hinted at here - its transformative effects will be staggering, a tumble through the rabbit hole for all of us. Some pundits might fret about the corrupting effects of such power and instant gratification, but as Alice herself remarked, "When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!"