From unconventional computing by slime mould to mainstream future?
Just as the world seems settled in its mastery of all things digital with a basic menu of silicon chips, the boffins at work on new and unconventional computing methods look set to give us all another massive shake-up.
A book published in 2012 is being given new exposure as some of its ideas are coming to fruition. Totally Wired: The Wild Rise and Crazy Fall of the First Dotcom Dream by Andrew Smith has been given the Sunday Times makeover.
With a headline, ‘Silicon chips? So last century. They can’t get any smaller, and they only think in straight lines. What comes next? A weird world where algae, mushrooms and microbes do our computing for us....’
As small as it can be
The book’s author Andrew Smith wrote the Sunday Times piece and began by citing Moore’s Law – ‘rapid advances in computing technology will see silicon-based microprocessors double in speed and capability every 18 months.’ And so they have done.
We take it for granted. However, he invites readers to consider Moore’s law breaking down, evolution of silicon-processing slowing before stopping ‘leaving our current technologies stranded.’
With a functioning micro-chip that ‘can sit on the end of a hair’ they have shrunk as far as they can ‘without becoming unstable.’ A tragedy?
Well, it would be if it weren’t for ‘the cadres of pan-global boffins working at the outer reaches of science’ for this day.
Computing with all sorts of other things
According to Smith, visionary scientists have been theorising systems that ‘compute with biological organisms, chemicals or light; would utilise microscopic nanotubes or the mind-blowing properties of quantum mechanics.’
To reassure our readers – the great 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman said, ‘if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics!’
But quantum mechanics is but one area of research that may point to our next computing systems. A tank of algae may be another.
A biological cell is a kind of switch, either dead or alive, on or off. A transistor switch is either on or off, same principles of computing as life itself.
It is thought that fungi might be ‘grown and made to simulate neural networks. And the advantages? Well, silicon circuits can work only in two dimensions; these fungi would work in three. ‘allowing exponentially more connections.’
The holy grail of parallel computing
All this is mind-boggling enough, but to discover there are already research centres into unconventional computing beavering away, is jaw-dropping.
He cites research from universities and such centres around the world discovering that single cell organisms and chemicals are ‘better than supercomputers at solving some problems.’
Principles discovered and established by war-time codebreaker Alan Turing where information is converted into symbols, passes it through silicon which can only reach a decision on the best solution to a problem by exploring all other possibles in turn (and generating masses of computer heat in the process), are already out of date.
What is now clear and is being applied to computing, is that nature ‘dealing as it does with complex, dynamic systems, tends top process information not in sequence, but in parallel.’
This is what he calls the ‘holy grail of computing.’
What else is on the menu?
Goo from slime mould found on rotting trees is one such unconventional computing medium being developed. Cells can be manipulated using light, vibration, salt and food – ‘it’s anyone’s for an oat flake.’
This kind of process doesn’t get any more environmentally friendly and does not create CO2 either.
In another range of work, ‘blobs of tiny, randomly ordered carbon tubes with walls one atom thick and unusual properties’ are called nanotubes and are among the most unconventional computing yet.
A school of thought in unconventional computing circles is that we can now ‘use Turing machines to create technologies that will make Turing machines redundant.’ We are at that point in evolution.
There seem to be no limits ahead. Terms such as ‘bio-molecular computing, cellular automata, in vitro computation, DNA computing, bacteria-based controllers for autonomous self-replicating robots, reversible computing …’
Science-fiction is truly a dead art. Fact has overtaken it. And as such unconventional computing becomes the new norm, so does living architecture with self-repairing, naturally re-growing materials are harnessed to shelter us.
The future is nearly here. Until it becomes old and absorbed into something else.
Be sure to check out:
Mushrooms Come Out of the Dark in New Building Boom, 29 April 2014
Image: Daniel Puleo