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IT TAKES AN OFFBEAT PERSPECTIVE TO THINK of the evanescent electronic fuss going on inside a computer as a sort of primordial stuff from which almost anything can take shape, from crystals to stars. But that's how physicists and computer builders Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology view their computer child, CAM-8 (for Cellular Automation Machine 8), a prototype of which is due to get its first breaths of electronic life next month. Then again, CAM-8 is an offbeat computer. Its specialty will be running so-called cellular automata models--computer simulations that portray the world as consisting of lots of discrete, locally interacting pieces--molecules of air in a gaseous slam dance, grains in a windblown sand pile, or species of animals sharing an ecosystem. While simulation programs on conventional computers are generally based on equations or algorithms describing the collective behavior of those pieces, cellular automata focus on the pieces themselves and the simple rules by which they interact: how one air molecule or sand grain nudges the next, for example, or how individual predators and their prey play their game of cat and mouse. As the computer traces these local interactions over time, the collective behavior of the system emerges. That's a more direct and potentially much more powerful way to simulate many physical systems, Margolus and Toffoli say. What's more, while general-purpose computing Schwarzeneggers such as the Cray X-MP and the Connection Machine 2 can run cellular automata models, computers tailor-made for them might be able to do so millions of times faster. Cam-8 is meant as a modest step toward that goal. But Margolus explains that he and Toffoli had something more than faster computer simulations in mind when they designed it. The models of reality provided by cellular automata, he says, "may ultimate turn out to be truer than the conventional equations of physics." Thus the researchers claim half-seriously that they are creating a versatile new form of matter, which they call programmable matter or computronium. "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],...
Source Citation (MLA 8 th Edition)
Amato, Ivan. "Speculating in precious computronium: a new computer embodies an architecture that - to its creators - mimics the structure and dynamics of physical reality." Science, vol. 253, no. 5022, 1991, p. 856+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
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