Meta.Morf 2018 – @Dokkhuset, Saturday March 10, 2018

This lets us see why a slime mould probably is computing; why the pan-computationalist’s lump of rock is not actually computing; and the different reason why the entire universe is not computing itself. And this will even let us see why the old aphorism “even a broken clock is right twice a day” is actually wrong.Susan Stepney

Can a slime mould compute?

If you have a PC, tablet, or smartphone, you have used a computer. But some people use billiard balls, beams of light, sticks of wood, chemicals, bacteria, slime moulds, spaghetti, even black holes, as computers (although some of these only in theory!). How can these things be classed as computers? What can they do? Why might you want to use one? And what does it even mean for such weird stuff to “compute”?

There is a link between the processes of science, engineering, and computing, with deep similarities, and essential differences. By examining these, and seeing how they map onto how these strange materials are used, we can distinguish cases where some material device is actually computing, from others where it is just “doing its thing”.

This lets us see why a slime mould probably is computing; why the pan-computationalist’s lump of rock is not actually computing; and the different reason why the entire universe is not computing itself. And this will even let us see why the old aphorism “even a broken clock is right twice a day” is actually wrong.

 


Susan Stepney is Professor of Computer Science at the University of York, and Director or the York Cross-disciplinary Centre for Complex Systems. Originally a theoretical astrophysicist, her doctoral and post-doctoral work involved analytical and computational modelling of relativistically hot plasmas. She spent the next 18 years of her professional career in the computer industry, in commercial R&D, mostly in formal methods, mathematically proving correct the implementation of the security for electronic cash cards. On moving back to academia in 2002, she began researching novel computation. She currently researches a range of unconventional computational systems, including emergence and self-organising systems, computational dynamical systems, open-ended novelty, artificial chemistries, and unconventional material computation, including NMR and carbon nanotubes. This latter work led to an investigation of what precisely it means for some unconventional material system — whether physical, chemical, or biological — to “compute”.