A team of international scientists from Canada, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden says that it has developed a biological supercomputer that is significantly faster and more efficient than traditional, electrical computers.
This allows it to solve complex problems including cryptography and mathematical optimization, which require the computer to test a large number of different solutions. Traditional computers can’t do this quickly, as they can only work on one problem at a time.
Electronic computers also require a lot of space, sometimes a room the size of a basketball court powered by its own energy plant, as CBC News reports. A biocomputer, on the other hand can work through multiple calculations at the same time, requiring space the size of a book, say paper authors.
“A biocomputer requires less than one per cent of the energy an electronic transistor needs to carry out one calculation step”, said Heiner Linke, a co-author of a paper on the topic in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and a nanophysics professor at Lund University in Sweden.
This biocomputer, scientists report, would run on a 1.5 square-centimeter microchip that can be powered by myosin, a protein that converts chemical energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to mechanical energy, to move protein filaments along artificial paths.
Just like electrons are propelled through a chip by an electrical charge in traditional computers, a biocomputer uses the power of ATP, the chemical that provides energy to the cells in human bodies, to move protein filaments along designated paths.
“In simple terms, it involves the building of a labyrinth of nano-based channels that have specific traffic regulations for protein filaments,” explained Dr. Linke in an online announcement. “The solution in the labyrinth corresponds to the answer of a mathematical question, and many molecules can find their way through the labyrinth at the same time,” he said.
There have already been efforts to significantly speed up computing. Quantum computers, which use various particles for processing information, instead of an electrical circuit, are currently being developed by companies like Google and Microsoft.
"However, these approaches have not proven, so far, to be scalable and practical from a fabrication and operational perspective," the researchers note.
Their biocomputers, researchers say, could solve the scalability problem.
“The fact that molecules are very cheap and that we have now shown the biocomputer’s calculations work, leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years,” said Linke.
“Certainly, quantum computers can be more powerful in the long term, but there are considerable practical problems involved in getting them to work,” he said.