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Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited
Seminar report - Emerging computer networks
Seminar report "Emerging computer networks"
Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, United Kingdom, July 1998 (EPSRC)This seminar was designed to launch the UK's new initiative which aims at helping to establish "networks" which bring together multidisciplinary communities and stimulate research in speculative, high-risk, high-rewarding emerging areas of computing. It was not just a "talking-shop", funds were being discussed and grants were to be made by the EPSRC for up to £50k per network for periods of two years (see Website : www.epsrc.ac.uk).
Examples of leading-edge research from around the world were highlighted and speakers discussed a number of novel developments that open fresh avenues to go beyond what what one participant called "the foreseeable performance capabilities of current computing approaches".
Some of the contributions illustrated such new approaches. Dr Eric Vittoz (Centre Suisse d'Electronique et de Microtechnique, Neuchatel, Switzerland) explained how biology could be a "rich" source of possible inspiration in microelectronic methods, strategies and architectures. He cited a number of examples of where that inspiration could lead such as:
massively parallel arrays of simple processing cells, including a degree of shared "collective processing";
opportunism in the exploitation of the properties of available technologies;
Nic Holt (ICL) said that silicon technology would reach its physical limits within about 20 years. He also argued that such limitations, particularly on large-scale information systems, will be overcome by looking to alternative approaches from naturally occurring information systems. He instanced:
3D storage and processing as used by the brain as one promising alternative, noting that the worldwide production of RAM chips in 1997 was equivalent to no more than 100 human brains.
Much could be learned from general evolutionary principles and the cooperative group behaviour of organisms like slime-mould cells, birds and ants.
Dr Richard Hughes (Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA) discussed the application of quantum physics principles to computing.
This novel paradigm, he said:
seeks to exploit quantum mechanical concepts, say by representing a bit with a quantum element, like a photon, whose "superposition" state is regarded as a 0 and 1 at the same time.
He also discussed the progress being made in applying quantum algorithms for cryptography and building quantum computing devices (see also Website: www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/ajgh-report by Prof Hey.) Dr Armin Fuchs (Florida Atlantic University, USA) focused the seminar's attention on "synergetic systems" composed of very many subsystems with non-linear interactions between them. Examples he gave were from hydrodynamics and pattern recognition to indicate the potential of such systems.
Cyberneticians will note the interest in the human brain and it was during the final part of the presentations that Dr David Willshaw (University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK) returned to what he called "the most powerful computing machine the human brain".
Dr Willshaw emphasised that:
researchers inspired by the computing potential of such natural phenomena could either try to imitate the natural system or exploit the general underlying principles.
He also stressed the need for close collaboration between IT specialists and experts from the disciplines that sparked the new computing ideas.This is a call that will be recognised by readers who advocate trans- and multi-disciplinary approaches to all research endeavours.