Natural computing makes Euell Gibbons proud.
(You’ll probably have to look that one up; here’s the link.) Indiana University published a news tidbit that one of its researchers, one Jonathan Mills, is featured in a new computer science book. What’s interesting about that is that the book is about Natural Computing, a field I was blissfully unaware of until just moments ago.
Since 1990, Mills has been studying naturally-occurring information processes, most specifically in the form of extended analog computers (EACs) that, rather than decompose data into pieces called bits, use a family of devices to compute specific functions by analogy.
That family of devices can include components as varied as foam, soap film, Plexiglas, and even Jell-O, to perform physical computations. The research is founded in a diverse range of studies that include computational complexity, very-large-scale integration design, neurobiology, chaos and non-linear dynamics, information theory, mathematical biology, quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics.
Holy cow: apparently there is always room for Jell-O.
[Lee A. Rubel, one of the pioneers in the field] thought such a machine could never be built, but Mills and Bryce Himebaugh, a computer design engineer at IU, have built a collection of them, including a recent one that delivers electrical current to one of 25 points on a conductive sheet of foam with a five-by-five input and output array of LEDs and programmable electrical current sources and sinks. With the foam serving as the primary computing element, current is taken from specific points, or current sinks, and the voltage measured or fed to an output circuit.
The book also includes a description of an experiment by Mills that you can do at home using baking soda, vinegar, food coloring, and a few other things to compute the shape of butterfly wings.
I just bought the book.