Air Force and university scientists share their vision for unconventional computing

  • Published
  • By Mary Pacinda
Autonomous devices can provide game-changing capabilities to the warfighter for new operations in challenging environments. A device is autonomous if it can gather information by sensing the environment and use that information to make a decision without human interaction. This may seem like a simple concept, but the hardware and computing requirements to create such a device can quickly become complex.
Conventional computing hardware represents information as ones and zeros, depending on the state of electronic transistors. This creates artificial bottlenecks in the flow of information processing by first requiring that environmental loads be converted into an electronic state and second by routing the information to centralized computers for processing. Researchers from Wright-Patterson’s Air Force Research Laboratory, along with collaborators from the University of Pennsylvania, University of York and Northwestern University, argue in a recently published Nature perspective paper that new and unconventional ways of representing information in materials could be the key to removing these bottlenecks and redistributing this computing burden.
The authors of the paper use mechanical computing as an example of alternative approaches for representing information in a material, with specific focus on mechanical logic operations. The perspective points out that, well before the advent of electronic computers in the mid-20th century, mechanical mechanisms were commonly used for computation. The paper uses the Antikythera mechanism of ancient Greece as an example, as well as the abacus, which is still used in some cultures.
“The difference now is that we have entirely new classes of functional materials that change shape or stiffness in response to their environment,” states AFRL author Dr. Phil Buskohl. “Harnessing this material behavior offers new opportunities to directly perform information processing in the physics and structure of these complex materials.”
The perspective paper outlines a three-layer model of computation to highlight how abstract computing tasks, such as digital logic, can be mapped down to a physical material or structure, such as a buckling beam or a bistable origami structure. How the environment interacts with the physical and abstract layers of this computational model highlights the opportunity for multifunctional and adaptive materials to perform computation.
“Ultimately, we hope this article stimulates conversation between the adaptive materials and information theory communities to the point that ‘information processing’ is viewed as a material property to characterize and design,” stated corresponding author Dr. Jordan Raney of the University of Pennsylvania. 
One near-term application for this computing concept is soft robotic systems, where a mechanical computing approach could augment autonomy-based tasks. Soft robotics refers to robots made from yielding and flexible material that is similar to the tissue of living organisms. Such robots would have a diverse Air Force utility for human-machine interaction in manufacturing and maintenance operations. According to the perspective paper, mechanical computing allows a direct “interface with the environment,” an important attribute for soft robotics and autonomous systems in general.
The authors acknowledge the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for their support of this work. Full details can be found at Nature.
About AFRL 
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: