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Introducing Crab Computing

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 26, 2012 08:42 AM

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If you’re tired of artificial, machine-made computers, then check out this new, all-natural computer, designed by computer scientists in Japan and Britain. It’s 100% organic: In place of the usual silicon circuits, it uses huge swarms of blue soldier crabs.

The “computer” was built by Yukio-Pegio Gunji and Yuta Nishiyama, of Kobe University, and Andrew Adamatzky, of the appropriately named Unconventional Computing Centre at the University of the West of England. Essentially, it exploits the extreme predictability and consistency of soldier crabs’ behavior. Individually, the crabs are very unpredictable, wandering hither and yon all over the beach. Gathered together, however, they are remarkably consistent. They create a huge swarm and charge off, either toward the water or away from the shadows of predatory birds. The crabs at the edge of the swarm lead the way, while the rest follow. But the swarm, the researchers write, is “robust”: If one of the leaders gets lost and ends up back inside the swarm, another steps up and takes its place. And it turns out that crab-swarm collisions are highly predictable, too: If the two swarms are the same size, then the resulting mega-swarm will head off at a speed and in a direction that averages its parents.

As they explain in their paper, published last year in the journal “Complex Systems,” the researchers took advantage of all this to make crab-based “logic gates.” Logic gates are the basic building-blocks of a computer: they take two inputs and perform a “logical operation” on them, resulting in one output. (An “AND” gate, for example, can tell you if the two inputs are similar or different.) The researchers compelled the crab-swarms to run through the maze-like gate by means of a scary, bird-like shadow, and they responded just as electrons would. They only tested one gate at a time – but, in principle, a number of gates chained together might be able to perform some basic math.

What’s the point? Increasingly, computer scientists are interested in the ways that natural systems solve computing problems. Often, they do so in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. Other researchers have investigated the ways in which honeybees compute the most efficient route through a field of flowers (see a well-reasoned take on that research here); one of the crab-computer researchers, Andrew Adamatzky, has been exploring the possibility of slime-mold computing. Future generations of computers, they argue, may well be inspired by nature.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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