Monday, 2 September 2013

TRUCE at ECAL

One of the projects I’m working on is called TRUCE: Training and Research in Unconventional Computation in Europe. As it says on the TRUCE project website:
Unconventional computation (UCOMP) is an important and emerging area of scientific research, which explores new ways of computing that go beyond the traditional model, as well as quantum- and brain inspired computing. Such alternatives may encompass novel substrates (e.g., DNA, living cells, or mixtures of the two) as well as new paradigms which, for example, support combined information processing and material production (as living systems do). UCOMP researchers draw inspiration from a wide and diverse range of sources, from physics, to chemistry, biology and ecology. The field is growing quickly, and has the potential to revolutionize not only our fundamental understanding of the nature of computing, but the way in which we solve problems, design networks, do industrial fabrication, make drugs or construct buildings.
TRUCE provides an ‘umbrella organisation’ to help coordinate, nurture and develop activities within the UCOMP community in Europe and beyond.
We ran a TRUCE workshop this Monday at ECAL, the European Conference on Artificial Life. Workshops at conferences are often run as mini-conferences themselves, with presented papers and posters. But we wanted to do something different, something ... unconventional.

One issue with unconventional computation is that conventional computers have a 60 year engineering head start. Although researchers can do what are actually amazing things with their slime molds, quantum computers, chemical droplets, bacteria, DNA, optical computers, and what-not, it’s early days yet, and the applications aren’t a patch on a smartphone. What we would like to do is think about what things will be like in about 60 years time in terms of unconventional computing.

So we decided that we should get some scientists together with some speculative fiction authors, and tell narratives of possible futures. We made a call for story ideas a few months back, and got a bunch of submissions. I put one in, too, so that the project could have an “inside view” of the process. The authors looked through the submissions, and each picked out an idea they thought they could weave into a story.

The aim is that each author will write their story set in their chosen scientific background, then the scientist will write an afterword, explaining the science in a bit more detail (or possibly explaining where the author ignored the science to make the story work!) These will all be published by Comma Press some time next year.

There was some preliminary contact between authors and scientists via Skype, then we all met up at the workshop for in-depth discussions. The author-scientist pairs scattered around the conference venue for most of the day, sitting in little coffee-fueled huddles, talking through the story ideas, and the underlying science. One attendee said “that’s the longest I’ve ever talked to someone who isn’t my wife continuously on a single subject!”

In the late afternoon, we all got back together and presented the current status of our ideas. Not all of them turned out to be dystopias, fortunately, but authors tend to want an interesting plot, which usually means things going wrong! But that’s fine: we can give warnings of futures that we don’t want to happen.

So, the authors get some futuristic scientific ideas for their stories. What do the scientists get out of the process? Well, some of my work is with biologists, building simulations of complex systems, which requires me to understand quite a bit of their science, which means I ask a lot of questions. One thing they say is “I like working with computer scientists, because they ask such different questions.” Different questions are good: they make you think about things from different angles, giving a different view on the problem.

And I can now say, I like working with authors, for exactly the same reason.

We’ll be having a second call for ideas soon. So, if you are researching some aspect of unconventional computation, and would like some unconventional discussion of your work, why not submit an idea? The second round won’t get to go to Sicily – sorry! – but you will get all the other spin off benefits.

And for everyone else: look out for the book next year.

2 comments:

  1. This looks really cool - I'll be interested in the book when it comes out.

    Have you seen / were you inspired by "Visions from the coming age of networked matter"? http://www.iftf.org/fanfutures/

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    1. Oooh! No, I hadn't seen that. Yet more to read :-)

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