Stoned neural networks, wet computers and audio Darwinsim

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2010

Here’s a handful of links from the weird and wonderful world of computer science…

First of all, Telepathic-critterdrug is described as “a controversial fork of the open source artificial-life sim Critterding, a physics sandbox where blocky creatures evolve neural nets in a survival contest. What we’ve done is to give these animals an extra retina which is shared with the whole population. It’s extended through time like a movie and they can write to it for communication or pleasure. Since this introduces the possibility of the creation of art, we decided to give them a selection of narcotics, stimulants and psychedelics. This is not in Critterding. The end result is a high-color cellular automaton running on a substrate that thinks and evolves, and may actually produce hallucinations in the user.

You can download your own copy of this bizarre experiment to play with. Quite what it’s supposed to achieve (other than entertaining its creators) I’m not entirely sure… but then again, that’s what we tend to think about the reality we inhabit, so maybe there’s some sort of simulation-theory microcosm metaphor that could be applied here, eh?

Next up, wetware is about to make the transition from science fictional neologism to genuine branch of technological research; boffins at the University of Southampton are hosting an international collaboration aimed at making a chemical computer based on biological principles [via SlashDot].

The goal is not to make a better computer than conventional ones, said project collaborator Klaus-Peter Zauner […] but rather to be able to compute in new environments.

“The type of wet information technology we are working towards will not find its near-term application in running business software,” Dr Zauner told BBC News.

“But it will open up application domains where current IT does not offer any solutions – controlling molecular robots, fine-grained control of chemical assembly, and intelligent drugs that process the chemical signals of the human body and act according to the local biochemical state of the cell.

And last but not least, DarwinTunes is an experiment by two ICL professors to see whether they can use genetic algorithms to “evolve” enjoyable music from chaos, using the feedback of human listeners [via MetaFilter]. The DarwinTunes project website is sadly lacking a page that explains the project in a nutshell (or at least one that’s easily located by a first-time visitor), but a bit of poking around in the early blog entries should reveal the details. Or you can just listen to their 500th-generation riffs and loops from the project, which is still running.

Compressed-air-punk, chemical-punk: non-silicon computing

Paul Raven @ 04-09-2009

Computers are made from slices of etched and doped silicon, right? Well, yeah, most of ’em are – but you can use other substances or mechanisms as a processing substrate, too. While the mechanical clockwork computer remains a fascinating and romantic anachronism in the steampunk style, how about an 8-bit microprocessor that runs on nothing other than air itself?

The complicated nest of channels and valves made by Minsoung Rhee and Mark Burns at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, processes binary signals by sucking air out of tubes to represent a 0, or letting it back in to represent a 1.

A chain of such 1s and 0s flows through the processor’s channels, with pneumatic valves controlling the flow of the signals between channels.

Each pneumatic valve is operated by changing the air pressure in a small chamber below the air channel, separated from the circuit by a flexible impermeable membrane. When the lower chamber is filled with air the membrane pushes upwards and closes the valve, preventing the binary signal flowing across one of the processor’s junctions.

Sucking out the air from the chamber reopens the valve by forcing the membrane downwards, letting the signal move across the junction.

Mechanical computing isn’t your only alternative, either – you can also move into the world of chemical computing. You know the “hot ice” stuff you get in those chemical hand-warmer packets? Well, not content with having already made a computer from a slime mold, one Andrew Adamatzky has been using sodium acetate as a processing substrate, with some degree of success [via SlashDot]:

The basic idea is to exploit the travelling wavefront of crystallisation to perform calculations […] So the speed of the wavefront as it moves through a Petri dish and the way it interacts with other wavefronts effectively performs computations.

Adamatzky inputs data by triggering nucleation at multiple points in parallel by immersing aluminium wires powdered with sodium acetate into a supersaturated solution in a Petri dish. He “processes” the wavefronts using blobs of silicone to steer them around the dishes and has used the technique to create AND and OR gates.

The results of a computation are determined by recording the movement of the wavefronts and analysing the edges of the resulting crystal structures.

So there’s two more potential ways of building computers that could survive the radiation levels of outer space – though whether they’d ever scale up to a useful level of power-to-size remains to be seen. I wonder what else we might use to fuel our ever-expanding hunger for processor cycles?