Taking Computers to the Next Level: Rebecca Schulman Leads Team Designing New System that Borrows From Biology

July 17, 2018

If you built the largest, most powerful computer currently feasible, it would have about the same number of transistors as there are synapses in the brain of a 3-year-old child. It would also be slightly larger than a tennis court, and consume 106 times the power needed by the preschooler’s brain.

All of which means that it might be time to look in a new direction for the next generation of computers, and the power and efficiency of the brain as a computing device suggests that it’s worth exploring biology as an inspiration, says Rebecca Schulman, assistant professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The National Science Foundation, which has a funding stream directed toward innovative biology-based information technologies, agrees with her, and awarded Schulman and three colleagues $1.5 million to design a computing system based on living cells.

“Our thought was that people have started programming cells, and now it is possible to create whole new genomes. What if we start over and engineer cultured cells like yeast, where the goal is to make them computing units?” asks Schulman, who will serve as principal investigator.

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