Computronium is a material hypothesized by Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The hypothesis was for a material that could be used as "programmable matter" for the computer modelling of any real object. Also, the material was hypothesized for a theoretical arrangement of matter that has been transformed into a computer of the maximum physically achievable efficiency. Which means any material with particles, including common materials such as rocks or water, could be a computer at a particle level.
Some have defined computronium as a substance that approaches the theoretical limit of computational power achievable through engineering the matter in an environment. Such a system would work at the limits of efficiency, with the smallest amount of energy wasted through heat generation. Computronium could offer a way to move past the physical and practical limits to the amount of computation or data storage that can be performed with a given amount of mass, volume, or energy.
What would constitute computronium tends to vary with the level of postulated technology and consists of hundreds or thousands of atoms. With more likely forms of computronium including three-dimensional quantum cellular automata, or other exotic forms of matter. Bill Butera, from MIT CBA, developed a programming model where code fragments move from particle to particle to self-organize into a system capable of solving problems, with the idea to change the computer into a raw material configured by instructions.
Computronium has also been used as a catchall term for a wide range of substances. For example, the biological neural matter of human brain tissue has been proposed as a form of computronium, with humans carrying around 1.5 kilograms of computronium in their heads. The most advanced version of computronium consists of densely packed computational elements used for speed and efficiencies. Using computronium could reduce signal times due to the shortened distances between elements, and each of these elements are a processing unit, increasing the scale of the processing units per volume.
The hypothesis for computronium from Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli included the duo's computer prototype, Cellular Automation Machine 8 (CAM-8). This computer's specialty was to run cellular automata models, which portray the world as consisting of lots of discrete interacting pieces. CAM-8 focuses on the pieces and the rules by which they interact, rather than the traditional use of equations and algorithms to describe the collective behavior of pieces.
MIT theoretical physicist Felix Villars was critical of the work of Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli, at the time commenting that there was nothing in Felix Villars's experience to suggest that cellular automata machines could do anything that could not be done with conventional computers.
Part of the development of CAM-8 was that the duo felt the use of cellular automata may offer a truer version of physics than conventional equations, and that in doing so develop a new form of matter, which was computronium. This would mean computronium would allow the same cubic meter of machinery to be a wind tunnel at one moment, a polymer at the next, or used to model a sea of fermions. As well, conventional computers were ill-suited in 1991 to model cellular automata models, the concepts of which dated to the work of John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam in the 1940s.
CAM-8 was also postulated as a computer offering a fraction of the circuitry of a contemporary supercomputer but offering greater speeds, as much as up to a factor of 10. This came from CAM-8's internal architecture, which used multiple processors working in parallel. And the processors were not interlinked, but rather with each processor only talking to the next one to reduce time-consuming, long-distance communications.
At the time of CAM-8's production, in 1991, processors were single-core computing devices, and the CAM-8 computer anticipated the development of multi-core processors while hypothesizing the possibility of computronium or programmable matter. And computronium offers a material model, which could make the manufacturing of smaller chips possible, with Neil Gershenfeld of MIT believing computronium leads to what he calls "personal fabrication." In personal fabrication, computers are outside of the box with the programmability of the digital world being used outside of computers. And through personal fabrication, users would not make just mechanical structures, but also develop functioning systems, including sensing, logic, actuation, and displays.
This could be done through the use of chips sized at a tenth of a millimeter sprinkled into a viscous medium and allowing for computers to be poured out, while maintaining the precision and computational power of conventional computers (if not more). And this, in turn, could lead to the use of computronium to develop smart matter.
With more exotic forms of computronium, including neutronium, Higgsium, and monopolium, there has been a theorized interlaced structure of positive-matter and negative-matter monopolium wrapped in a fractal Van Den Broeck warp, with the fractal warp theoretically able of extending indefinitely and exponentially.
Ray Kurzweil has cited the calculation of Seth Lloyd to suggest the computational limits of computronium-developed computers is universal scale, capable of 1090 operations per second. This has been suggested for the observable universe reachable at near light speed. With the universe being estimated to being far larger, and if the matter of the universe was turned into a blackhole, with a lifetime of 2.8 x 10139 seconds before evaporating (according to Hawking radiation), the computronium hypothesis suggests the blackhole could be turned into a computer capable of performing 2.8 x 10229 operations per second. This also suggests a model where the speed of light is no longer a limit, and travel throughout the universe, and throughout a multiverse, may also be unlimited. With this, there comes the possibility for a quantum computronium multiversal computer, which has a proposed 10600 operations per second.
The concept of computronium has also been linked to machine intelligence, in which a block of matter that is able of computing could be used for a compact and powerful artificial intelligence computer. This could move towards an artificial general intelligence, which could convert all available mass to computronium and therefore optimizing computing power to power the artificial general intelligence towards its end goal. This has especially been hypothesized for use in mathematical calculations as a pure computational goal. And the use of computronium has been theorized, by Hugo de Garis and Eliezer Yudkowsky, to offer the most powerful possible infrastructure for intelligence.
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