Damaging even a single binary digit is enough to shut your computer down. According to computer scientist Peter Bentley, if your car was as brittle as the conventional computer, then every chipped windscreen or wheel scrape would take your car off the road. He is part of a group developing biologically inspired technologies at UCL. They have developed a self-repairing computer, which can instantly recover from crashes by fixing corrupted data.
Bentley started from scratch. He says, ‘if we want a computer to behave like a natural organism, then what would the architecture of that computer look like? I spent several years trying to make the concept as simple as possible.’ He designed a simulation with its own calculus, graph notation, programming language and compiler. His PhD students worked on improvements and developed software and biological models that show it really can survive damage. He continues, ‘we can corrupt up to a third of a program and the computer can regenerate its code, repairing itself and making itself work again.’
A centralised architecture will fail as soon as one component fails. Our brains lose neurons every day but we're fine because the brain can reconfigure itself to make use of what is left. The systemic computer does the same thing. The systemic computer uses a pool of systems where its equivalent of instructions may be duplicated several times.
With the traditional computer if you wanted to add numbers together it would have a program with a single add instruction. In a systemic computer it might have several ‘adds’ floating about, any of which might be used to perform that calculation. It's the combination of multiple copies of instructions and data and decentralisation, plus randomness that enables the systemic computer to be robust against damage and repair its own code.
NEW PROGRAMMING CONCEPT
Bentley’s team is working to improve the programming language further, and to create software that will allow the computer to learn and adapt to new data. He says they are constantly looking for better hardware on which to implement the computer and would love to collaborate with industry and develop a version of this new kind of computer for everyone.