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Topics in Unconventional Computing - COM00158M

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  • Department: Computer Science
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Susan Stepney
  • Credit value: 10 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20
    • See module specification for other years: 2020-21

Module summary

This module introduces Unconventional Computing, including unconventional computational models, consequences of the physical embodiment of all computation, and relevance to artificial life.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

This module introduces various topics Unconventional Computing, including (i) unconventional computational models such as reservoir computing, analogue computing, and hypercomputing, (ii) consequences of the physical embodiment of all computation, including in physical materials and biological cells, and (iii) applications to artificial life, including artificial chemistries, emergence, generative processes, and open-ended systems.

Module learning outcomes

  • have a grounding in a range of unconventional computing models, including similarities and essential differences, and their applicability
  • have an understanding of the underlying principles of computing in an unconventional context, including embodiment and open-endedness
  • be aware of the issues, capabilities, and limitations of unconventional computing
  • be able to apply these techniques and concepts to the investigation of a novel problem

Module content

Lectures (provisional guide)

  1. Introduction -- constrast to conventional comp -- When Does a Physical System Compute?

  2. Bio-inspired search -- Evolutionary Algorithmss, Novelty Search, Particle Swarm Optimisation, Ant Colony Ooptimisation

  3. Analogue computing

  4. Reservoir computing -- in simulation and in materio 

  5. Computing with/in biology: DNA computing, Synthetic biology, limitations

  6. Super Turing and hypercomputing -- as theoretical models

  7. Process models and non-termination

  8. Cellular Automata and Random Boolean Networks

  9. Dynamical systems -- chaos, edge of chaos, attractors

  10. Complex systems -- emergence; complexity measures

  11. Artificial Chemistry -- complex constrained combinatorics; automata chemistries

  12. Generative models -- L-systems, DNA tiles

  13. Artificial Life -- self-application, self-production, reflection

  14. Conclustion: life as embodied self-reflective unconventional computaton

The Seminars will be group discussions where more general points raised in the lectures can be explored in a more informal setting, and where students will give short presentations on selected topics


Task Length % of module mark
Report on UComp
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Report on UComp
N/A 100

Module feedback

1. Formative feedback is provided by the lecturer and peers in interactive seminars. 

2. Written feedback on the final assessment report will be provided within 4 weeks of submission.

Indicative reading

There is no one book that covers all the module material. Books for parts of the material are indicated below, although they cover a broader area than the module. (Do NOT buy these books -- they are much too expensive. Copies of appropriate parts will be made available.)  Appropriate review paper, and research papers will be noted in lectures and some will be discussed in the seminar sessions. 

1. Adamatzsky, ed. Advances in Unconventional Computing (2 vols)  Springer. 2017

2. Stepney, Amos, Rasmussen, eds.  Computational Matter. Springer. 2018.

3. Langton, ed. Artificial Life: an Overview. MIT Press 1995.


The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): changes to courses

The 2020/21 academic year will start in September. We aim to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as we can, supported by high quality online alternatives where we must.

Find details of the measures we're planning to protect our community.

Course changes for new students