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Posted By Peter Bentley
I was contacted recently by a journalist, presumably interested because of my research and books such as Digital Biology. I'm not sure I how helpful I was, but here are her questions and my answers:

1. How do you see biology playing a role in computation? What are the advantages of biology ( a slow conductor)?

I think you need to view computation differently when considering natural and biological systems. A brain or ant colony does not process symbols, they do not follow a von Neumann architecture and they may or may not be Turing Complete. So conventional computer science is not very good at expressing the computation that biology does. This is, I think, the key to how biology is useful - by analysing how organisms store and process information we can understand a much broader and more fundamental notion of what computation really is.

2. What are some applications that you've found already? Do the applications exist in things that we use today?

Our technology is increasingly resembling biological systems - as we develop more and more interconnected complex systems, we run into countless problems that have already been solved by nature. For example, a flock of birds has no centralised air traffic controller - they all do the task themselves and they never collide even in flocks of millions of birds in a relatively small space. Cells developing in an embryo are able to pass messages to each other and cope even if some are destroyed - a handy ability for new technology such as sensor networks (which may form the basis of the Internet of the future).

3. When (if ever) should we expect to have computers made out of biology?

That depends what you mean by "made out of biology". We already use bio-inspired algorithms such as neural networks, swarm intelligence and genetic algorithms for many practical problems with great success. Some researchers like myself would like to change the architecture of computers and make them resemble biological systems more closely so that we can benefit from biological capabilities more (adaptability, fault tolerance, self-design, self-assembly, self- repair). Other researchers are trying to exploit the building blocks of life (e.g. DNA computing) or actual life (using bacteria), or even to reinvent life (in the field of synthetic biology).

4. Who else should I talk to?

That depends on what you want to know.

5. What initially inspired you to use biology to improve computation? How do you think biology will change computing in the next 10 years to the next 50 years?

Since childhood I have been inspired by evolution. It's my creator, and although it's blind, cruel, indifferent and unthinking, it is the most creative process we've ever encountered. It created living organisms - macro-scale nanotechnology which builds itself, repairs itself, maintains itself, and makes new copies of itself in addition to a million other extraordinary behaviours and functions. Biology has always inspired computation - Turing, von Neumann and Shannon were all fascinated by life, intelligence and biological systems, and scientists have attempted to harness some of the capabilities in computers ever since. As our technology becomes ever more complex and our abilities to create more plastic, embodied technology improve, then computers will look increasingly more similar to biological systems. We will probably always need serial devices to perform conventional mathematics for us, but in the future I fully expect hugely parallel, asynchronous, distributed and biological computers to become commonplace. I think the only difference between a biological organism and a conventional computer is that a conventional computer is a very clumsy and poor example of a computer.


 
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