Unconventional Computing in the Built Environment

Unconventional Computing in the Built Environment

Rachel Armstrong (University of Greenwich, UK)
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/jnmc.2011010101


The Synthetic Biology engineering based approach to living systems intersects with the new interdisciplinary field of unconventional computing and suggests a new method for design in architectural practice. Living systems possess unique properties that are not present in digital/mechanical systems - their sensors and effectors are intrinsically coupled, perform parallel forms of computation, are able to respond to unpredictable circumstances, respond in real time to environmental changes, and possess a robustness that can result in evolutionary change. This paper proposes how living technology, operating through the principles of unconventional computing could offer new environmentally remediating materials for architectural practice using a bottom-up approach to the construction of buildings and other human-made interventions.
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Life As A Computational Process

The precedent for considering life as a technology has already been established through the scientific disciplines of biotechnology and synthetic biology, owing to the development of theoretical and practical models describing how living systems work. These algorithmic evaluations of living processes offer an approach through which the engineering and modification of biology can be creatively applied to solve existing problems in new ways. Biology can be thought of as the spontaneous, sustained, self-assembling chemical system that has arisen on earth. Over the last few decades new perspectives and models in understanding cell organization have provided insights that enable biology to be designed to support human culture in an increasing variety of ways. This engineering based approach to biological organization intersects with the field of unconventional computing. This is a new interdisciplinary research area that aims to enrich or go beyond the standard models of computing, such as the von-Neumann information architecture and the Turing machine that have dominated computer science for more than half a century (Adamatzky et al., 2007; Cooper et al., 2008; Stepney et al., 2007). Over the last fifty years many analogies between biology and computing have been made. Notably, these manifest as shared terminology applied to digital technologies such as, genetic codes to describe organizational principles, or viruses referring to infectious information agents (Armstrong, n. d.).

“Computer viruses are an analogy -- it's a very good analogy, because a computer virus is a piece of computer code written in computer language. It says, “Duplicate me and spread me around and maybe do some mischief on the way,” and it works because computers obey the instructions written in computer language. If you write a program that says “duplicate me, spread me around,” it will spread by the medium of floppy disks and so on” (Dawkins, n. d.).

However, there are fundamental differences between digital technology and organisms such as, the ability of biology to uniquely able to respond to unpredictability in a flexible, embodied way and establish an intimate connectedness to its surroundings that clearly distinguish living systems from digital technologies. Additionally, unlike digital systems that can be built from their component parts, biology has not been successfully constructed from an understanding of its fundamental units and arises as a spontaneous, complex system of networks under the ‘right’ conditions, which can be described using a combination of top-down and bottom up organizational relationships.

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