Don’t teach it Daisy Bell

Did you see the story about the researchers who are growing computer brains out of organic material? And not just that, but massively parallel computers. Oh, and just for fun, they’ve also ditched that whole binary concept, skipped over trinary, and moved the whole thing on to quaternary logic.

If you’re not lucky enough to have access to journals1, you can still read some details from the university’s news service:

The researchers made their different kind of computer with DDQ, a hexagonal molecule made of nitrogen, oxygen, chlorine and carbon that self-assembles in two layers on a gold substrate.

The DDQ molecule can switch among four conducting states—0, 1, 2 and 3—unlike the binary switches—0 and 1—used by digital computers.

“The neat part is, approximately 300 molecules talk with each other at a time during information processing,” Pati says. “We have mimicked how neurons behave in the brain.”

OK, so as a computer geek, I can see some usages for both processing on 300 parallel threads (and really parallel–more like 300 cores), as it were, and I think I can see how quaternary basic structures would make for much more efficient processing. So that would be pretty cool right there. How much would you pay now? But wait, there’s more…

In addition, their molecular processor heals itself if there is a defect. This property comes from the self-organizing ability of the molecular monolayer. “No existing man-made computer has this property, but our brain does,” Bandyopadhyay says. “If a neuron dies, another neuron takes over its function.”

Self-healing… interesting. Of course, we know that in human brains, damage to the tissue can result in very strange consequences to the modes and results of though. I’d hate to think that a voltage spike, or dropping the case, could result in a computer that had to undergo extensive therapy to relearn how to do things it had previously known, or a computer that displayed sociopathology–although there’s probably a great explanation in there for all the variations on computer-gone-killer.

This is interesting, too:

“The evolving neuron-like circuit network allows us to address many problems on the same grid, which gives the device intelligence,” Pati says. As a result, their tiny processor can solve problems for which algorithms on computers are unknown, especially interacting many-body problems, such as predictions of natural calamities and outbreaks of disease. To illustrate this feature, they mimicked two natural phenomena in the molecular layer: heat diffusion and the evolution of cancer cells.

So… they’re teaching it to think about disease outbreaks and evolving cancer? Man, the 70s-fear-of-technology-thriller airport book/movie writes itself.

Even without the cheesy horror angles, though, there’s no question that we’re living in science fiction.

I saw this over at jwz’s LJ, where the first commentor has some interesting comments on the details of the paper.

Oh, and later in the comments, Jamie has what is definitely my quote of the day:

People who believe that algorithms that have allegedly been proven formally correct that are running on computers made of atoms will, in fact, do what they have been “proven” to do don’t understand math, or software development, or physics, or all three.

  1. Yet another benefit of a spouse in academe.(back)

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada
This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.