Royal Society ‘Heterotic Computing’ conference

Last week I spent two days at an unusual and small computing conference in Buckinghamshire. Refreshingly, I wasn’t the only one with no prior knowledge of the subject of the talks going on: the organisers had gathered people from such a diverse range of research fields that a common complaint was, ‘I feel unqualified to contribute to this debate’.

Together, we witnessed small snapshots of the world of unconventional computing, a world of slime moulds, computing with strands of DNA or DNA woven into ’tiles’ that clip together, and computing with chemicals that flash from red to blue and back again. I was constantly surprised by how basic much of this research is: these people seem motivated by just having a lot of fun playing with these materials and getting them to compute labyrinths, for example. It is understandable, human-sized, and a world away from the Intel processing power we are accustomed to. And it was interesting to witness a research field finding its feet. 

The debate about what ‘heterotic’ means never happened – I leave with the vague notion of it being mixed mode, or hybrid in the sense of using different materials to compute. Only the quantum computing contributions to the conference really dealt with this. Personally I think the conference was more about unconventional computing, and whether these new materials are really computing something, and what ‘computing’ means. You could use an apple falling from a tree to calculate gravity’s pull, but can you really say the apple did the calculating? Self-organisation was a recurrent theme, as was quantum behaviour. At the end people joked that quantum computing is now mainstream because it’s been around so long. So perhaps they won’t be invited next year! All in all a great two days and hopefully I’ll manage to get some stories out of it.




About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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