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Evolution Meets Computation

Nature and technology may seem worlds apart, but New York University Computer Scientist, and former Dr. Dobb's Journal columnist Dennis Shasha maintains that the natural world can bolster the capacity of today’s most sophisticated machines. In Natural Computing: DNA, Quantum Bits, and the Future of Smart Machines, Shasha and co-author Cathy Lazere describe the work of 15 pioneers who have successfully harnessed nature’s power in advancing technology.

Increasingly complex processors and software have been utilized to overcome increasingly complex problems, but what happens when technology reaches the cognitive limits of the designers? Instead of trying to design for all scenarios, engineers are designing intelligent machines that synthesize and adapt to the world in which they operate.

Shasha and Lazere recount work in a promising field -- natural computing -- that has started to yield machines that exceed the capability of traditional technologies. For more on natural computing, read Shasha and Lazere's article on the subject here.

Taking inspiration from life, scientists have learned how to create robots that move intelligently on Mars, spacecrafts that can heal themselves, and even methods to trade successfully on Wall Street -- all through an increased understanding of how evolutionary ideas can aid in solving fundamentally non-algorithmic problems.

They also review the work of scientists, such as NYU Chemistry Professor Nadrian Seeman, who has successfully programmed not the behavior of certain types of software, but more significantly, the actions of life’s most fundamental building blocks through a “DNA assembly line.” While this may sound exotic, it can also be practical.

“If you want a device that will repair skin, bones, or arteries,“  authors Shasha and Lazere explain, “it makes far more sense to build the device out of DNA, viruses, or cells, than to build it out of electronics.”

Shasha is a professor at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Lazere, a freelance writer, is a former editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit. They previously co-authored Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists.

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