Emerging Tech Blog
Biocomputing - a cutting-edge field of technology - operates at the intersection of biology, engineering, and computer science. It seeks to use cells or their sub-component molecules (such as DNA or RNA) to perform function traditionally performed by an electronic computer.
The ultimate goal of biocomputing is to mimic some of the biological ‘hardware’ of bodies like ours - and to use it for our computing needs. From less to more complicated, this could include:
1. Using DNA or RNA as a medium of information storage and data processing
2. Connecting neurons to one another, similar to how they are connected in our brains
3. Designing computational hardware from the genome level up
Cells Already Compute
Cells are far more powerful at computing than our best computers. For example:
1. Cells store data in DNA
2. Receive chemical inputs in RNA (data input)
3. Perform complex logic operations using ribosomes
4. Produce outputs by synthesizing proteins
Biocomputing’s engineering challenge is to gain a granular level of control of the reactions between organic compounds like DNA or RNA.
Overheating & High Energy Use
Traditional computers use microchips, which heat up quickly. Supercomputers are usually a collection of several high-speed traditional computers, combined into a single unit. Generally, they are not qualitatively different from traditional computers. Even so, supercomputers use a lot of energy, heat up quickly, and require massive cooling units in order to function at full speed. On the other hand, biological matter can perform calculations and process data without using as much energy, and without heating up significantly.
Regular computers perform one task at a time and switch quickly between tasks to give the user a seamless experience of multiple tasks running simultaneously. Biological systems, on the other hand, engage in ‘parallel computation’ – whereby multiple tasks can be executed truly simultaneously.
Early proof-of-concept work has been completed using myosin - a superfamily of motor proteins which cause muscle contraction and convert chemical energy into mechanical energy. Myosin-enabled biocomputing could perform multiple computations simultaneously.
Self-Organizing and Self-Repairing
Biological molecules also display an intelligent ability to self-organize and self-repair. So, biocomputing engineers will have to find ways to simulate this intelligent ‘software’ on top of the biological molecule ‘hardware’ to produce, organize, and repair the biocomputing system.
Similar to a living organism the “software” in biological systems is responsible for producing and assembling the hardware which in turn will help run the software.
While biocomputing is in an early phase, biocomputers have the potential to enable far more powerful computing than today’s best computers – while using less energy and generating less heat. Furthermore, biocomputers will be able to use parallel computing, which will represent a significant improvement upon regular computing, and will be able to better self-organize and self-repair. While authoritative estimates of the eventual environmental impact of biocomputing do not yet exist, biocomputing could potentially reduce our reliance on the silicon and rare earth minerals that power today’s computers.
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