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Computronium: the 'element' that imitates.

Computronium: The 'element' that imitates

In the 1956 film" Forbidden Planet," the long-extinct Krell civilization had left behind an amazing technology capable of materializing any mental image. Several months from now, two MIT scientists expect to unveil a less awesome yet uniquely powerful computer technology designed for carrying out the world's most detailed modeling of almost any material phenomenon conceivable.

By reconfiguring about the same amount of electronic hardware contained in today's best parallel-processing computers, computer scientists Tommaso Toffoli and Norma Margolus say they are improving upon their earlier versions of what they call cellular automala machines (CAMs). At last week's Artificial Life Conference in Santa Fe, N.M., Toffoli said the new "CAM-8" will represent the first generation of machines capable of mimicking physical processes with unprecedented detail and verisimilitude.

Like gases, crystals, animals and even globs of mayonnaise, computer-generated cellular automate are composed of particles or cells, albeit computational rather than material ones. Board-game-type rules reflecting scientific understanding of the real phenomena under study govern the simulated particles' starting arrangements, interactions and eventual transformation into static, oscillating or chaotic systems. As cellular automata "evolve" within the CAM circuitry, the patterns on the computer screen often resemble behaviors of complex physical and living systems (SN: 2/10/90, p.86).

Toffoli says he thinks of CAM-8 as "computronium" -- a flexible "element" capable of mimicking all other elements and particles, real or imagined. CAM-8 thus "embodies the concept of 'programmable matter,'" the researchers suggest in a report to appear this summer in the Dutch journal PHYSICAL D.

"In programmable matter, the same cubic meter of machinery can become a wind tunnel at one moment, a polymer soup at the next; it can model a sea of fermions [elementary particles], a genetic pool or an epidemiology experiment at the flick of a console key," they write.

In "Forbidden Planet," the same technology that filled the Krells' material needs also destroyed that civilization by creating "the monsters of their ids," as Walter Pidgeon put it in his role as Dr. Morbius. But since even CAM-8 simulations exist only as electronic patterns within a complex computer, Toffoli says they will merely help researchers to "domesticate physics" for a better understanding of natural processes.
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Title Annotation:computer technology for detailed modeling
Author:Amato, I.
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 17, 1990
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