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Informed matter: The confluence of information processes and material science

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Abstract: The 19th century brought about an understanding of energy for the molecular level. The 20th century saw rapid progress in the manipulation of matter enabling the purposeful design of organic molecules, and the advent of bio-chemistry. The latter opened the view on marvellously sophisticated macro-molecules and supra-molecular structures—-but offered no path to enter this design space. It is for the 21st century to complement the achievements of the past with the application of information processes at the molecular scale. When this hurdle can be tackled, however, the technology impact will rival the advent of organic chemistry.

To make the complexification of matter exhibited by nature amenable to engineering, it will be necessary to mimic the molecular level information processes employed by organisms to fabricate and maintain their molecular machinery. Living systems are peculiarly organised inhomogeneous arrangements of the very same matter that forms the remaining dead universe. Their highly organised state can be sustained only by active maintenance which in turn necessitates the processing of information—-life without computation is inconceivable. Conversely, the proficiency with which single-cell organisms maintain their living state under adverse conditions and severe constraints in energy and material indicates the efficiency that may be achieved through the direct use of the physical characteristics of materials for computation.

In face of the apparent discrepancy between attempts to implement artificial devices with life-like properties (robots, cognitive systems) and the performance of living systems it appears likely that the intertwining of information processing and material processes innate to organisms may confer computational capabilities that in practise surpass conventional computing methods for some application domains.

This talk will explore the dual role of molecular information technology as a facilitator for the synthesis of complex materials and as a resource for computational power, and show which steps we take in the laboratory on the path towards exploiting information processes at the molecular scale.

Biography: Klaus-Peter Zauner is a Senior Lecturer in the Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton and the Deputy Chair of the University’s Strategic Research Group for Life Sciences. He was born in Stuttgart, soldered together a Sinclair ZX81 as his first computer and went on to study Biochemistry at the University of Tuebingen. Intrigued by Nature’s molecular scale information processing mechanisms he left Tuebingen in 1992 for Detroit to join Michael Conrad’s Biocomputing Group—-at the time one of the very few places with research in molecular computing. Under Michael Conrad’s mentorship he worked on conformational computing and enzymatic computing. Klaus-Peter received his Ph.D. in computer science from Wayne State University, Detroit in 2001. He started his academic career as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wayne State University, then returned to Europe in 2002 to work with Peter Dittrich in the Bio Systems Analysis Group at the University of Jena, before taking up a lecturer position at the University of Southampton in 2003. His goal is to figure out how organisms achieve their highly integrated and efficient real-time information processing capabilities, and to transfer the resulting insights to the engineering of novel computing devices. The work of his team is distinctive in its approach of adapting information paradigms to materials as opposed to enforcing programmability on matter.

Klaus-Peter is a Microsoft Research European Fellow and recipient of a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award.

This talk is part of the Microsoft Research Symposium series.

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