Frontiers of Natural Computing workshop
York, UK, 10th-12th September 2012

The Frontiers of Natural Computing

Download the Final Programme

The Frontiers of Natural Computing workshop will be held in the historic city of York. The workshop aims to highlight and discuss emerging trends and future directions in the field of natural computing, and will feature invited position papers from world-leading researchers across the field.

The technical programme will focus upon the potential for future developments within the field of natural computing, addressing questions such as:

- What are the emerging trends in natural computing?
- How will current research influence future developments?
- Is the research community is heading in the right direction?
- What important ideas have been overlooked and should be revisited?
- What is there still to learn from biological and natural systems?

Attending the Workshop

We welcome attendees from all areas of the natural computing community. Thanks to funding from the EPSRC, registration is free. We also have a number of student bursaries available, which will contribute towards the travel and accommodation costs of registered students who are presenting at the workshop. If you would like to attend, please see the Registration page.

Getting to the Workshop

The workshop is being held in the Ron Cooke Hub, located on the University of York's new Heslington East campus.

To reach Heslington East by public transport, take bus lines 44 or 4, both of which run between the railway station and the University, and get off at the last stop. See here for locations of intermediate bus stops. The journey takes approximately 15-20 minutes.

View larger map

The following speakers will be giving invited talks at the workshop.

Martyn Amos“Computational Synthetic Biology”
Computational biology is now well-established as a scientific discipline in which algorithmic tools are applied to problems in the life sciences. However, its remit lies largely in expanding our understanding of the underlying biology, with an emphasis on analysis. We are particularly interested in the emerging field of synthetic biology, in which practitioners aim to understand - and then engineer - biological systems. In this talk, we present an overview of our recent work on applying modelling and simulation techniques in the area of synthetic biology.
Martyn Amos is a Reader and head of the Novel Computation Group at the School of Computing, Mathematics and Digital Technology, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.
Wolfgang Banzhaf“Genetic Programming and Emergence”
Emergence and its accompanying phenomena are a widespread process in Nature. Despite of its prominence, there is no agreement in the Sciences about the concept and how to define or measure emergence. One of the most contentious issues discussed is that of top-down (or downward) causation as a defining characteristic of systems with emergence. In this contribution we shall look at a sub-area of Bio-inspired Computing - Genetic Programming - and discuss how it relates to emergence.
Wolfgang Banzhaf is a Professor at Memorial University Newfoundland, Canada. He is also head of the ACM special interest group on evolutionary computation.
Kwang-Hyun Cho“The Core Processing Module of Cellular Computing Networks”
How does a cell respond to numerous external stresses with a limited number of internal molecular components? There are a number of reports showing that the molecular interaction network within a cell is not random but a sophisticated information processing structure. So, there might be a hidden core processing module, a commonly involved regulation structure in the regulatory network of a cell, which cells re-use in response to an array of environmental stresses. In this talk, I will present some of our recent discoveries on the existence of such a hidden core structure that has been developed evolutionarily. I will also present various intriguing evidences showing the topological and biological properties of this structure. The core processing module of a cellular system might be an evolutionarily conserved information processing unit that endows a cell with enhanced robustness and efficiency in dealing with numerous environmental stresses and signals with a limited number of internal elements. Identification of such a core processing module is useful not only for advancing our understanding on cellular information machinery but also for numerous bio- and information-technological applications.
Kwang-Hyun Cho is a Professor in the Department of Bio and Brain Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, where he is head of the Laboratory for Systems Biology and Bio-Inspired Engineering.
René Doursat — “Complex Systems and Morphogenetic Engineering: New Avenues Toward Self-Organized Architecture ”
Engineering is caught in a contradiction: on the one hand, it strives for strong design and full mastery of its artifacts; on the other hand, it would like these same devices to be autonomous, self-repairing and adaptive — in one word, “intelligent”. Still today, our most sophisticated contraptions (computer and robotic systems) must be spoon-fed at every stage of their existence: entirely architectured, built, and programmed, then continually monitored, repaired, and upgraded. Meanwhile, the insatiable user demand for functional innovation and robustness has created an escalation in system size and complexity at all levels (hardware, software and networks). In this context, the tradition of rigid design and control in every detail from a top-down perspective is becoming wholly unsustainable.
A bright light toward a solution is shining from complex systems (CS), large sets of elements interacting locally to produce an emergent behavior in a bottom-up fashion. Whether physical, biological, or social, CS can provide a powerful source of inspiration to future and emerging technologies. Understanding these systems by modeling and simulation could help create a new generation of artificial systems with the desired “self-x” properties still largely absent from classical engineering. For example, several disciplines originating from “bio-inspiration”, “artificial life” or “natural computing” have already derived principles of distributed computation from the observation of natural elements, whether neurons (Artificial Neural Networks), genes (Genetic Algorithms), ants (Ant Colony Optimization), or lymphocytes (Artificial Immune Systems).
This talk and dicussion will focus on another possible avenue of complexity engineering: biological development, or morphogenesis. Multicellular organisms are striking examples of naturally evolved systems that exhibit both self-organization *and* a strong architecture. Can we export their precise self-formation capabilities to technological systems? A new research field called “Morphogenetic Engineering” proposes to explore the artificial design and implementation of complex, heterogeneous morphologies capable of developing without central planning or external lead. Particular emphasis is set on the programmability and controllability of self-organization, properties that are often underappreciated in complex systems science—while, conversely, the benefits of multi-agent self-organization are often underappreciated in engineering methodologies. Potential applications range from swarm robotics and cyber-physical systems, to techno-social networks and synthetic biology. In all cases, the challenge is not to design the system directly but rather “meta-design” the proper set of rules followed by each agent on how to behave locally and interact with the other agents and the environment.
René Doursat is a Research Scientist in the Research Group in Biomimetics, University of Malaga, and former director of the Complex Systems Institute in Paris.
Barry McMullin — “Architectures for self-reproduction: resuming von Neumann's research program in Natural Computing”
It is well recognised that von Neumann's seminal abstraction of machine self-reproduction can be related to the reality of biological self-reproduction — albeit only in very general terms. On the other hand, the most thoroughly studied computational systems incorporating meaningful self-reproduction are the coreworld systems such as Tierra, Avida etc.; and these, in general, rely on a purely “self-copying” mode of reproduction (or, more simply, “replication”). To the extent that the latter has any direct biological analog it would appear to be with molecular level reproduction and evolution in the hypothesized RNA-world (though even this analogy is strained!). In this presentation I propose to review the details and distinctions between these modes of reproduction. I will then indicate how the abstract von Neumann self-reproduction architecture can, in fact, be readily realised in coreworld systems; and suggest a concrete research program that might flow from this. Finally I will attempt to make more precise the corresponding analogies with molecular biology, at least up to the bacterial level.
Barry Mullin is Director of the Rince Institute, Dublin, Ireland, where he is also head of the Artificial Life Laboratory.

Daniel Polani“Informational Principles in the Perception-Action Loop”
Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (1956) and, in last years, especially its later rediscovery and extension by Touchette and Lloyd (2000, 2004) have indicated that Shannon information acts as fundamental “currency” constraining the potential organisation and “administration” of cognitive tasks. In particular, there is increasing evidence that decision processes in biological organisms in fact exploit the limits implied by aforementioned work, and can therefore be subject to analysis with respect to information-theoretical optimality principles.
Under this hypothesis, many aspects of biologically plausible cognitive processing can be treated informationally, requiring only high-level constraints without having to specify detailed mechanisms. This gives rise to novel tools not only for high-level analysis of biological cognitive systems, but also for purposes of prediction and construction of biologically plausible artificial cognitive models.
The talk will give an introduction into the question and methodology and demonstrate its operation with a number of examples.
Daniel Polani is a Reader in the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.
Ricard Solé“Natural and Synthetic Biocomputers: A New Approach”
Biological systems can be understood, at multiple scales, in terms of networks of connected units. Such networks gather information from their environments, process it and respond in nonlinear ways. In other words, they compute. Computation is an essential component of biology and some of its fundamental attributes, including robustness and evolvability. The potential for engineering biological systems at the molecular and cellular scales has opened the door for a new approach to computation. One recent advancement in this area has been the proposal of a nonstandard way of engineering biological circuits. Such approximation is based on a distributed computation approach which deeply departs from standard electronic circuit design and suggests new ways of designing and even understanding computation in nature.
Ricard Solé is a Research Professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain, where he is head of the Complex Systems Laboratory. He is also an External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute.
Christof Teuscher“From Intrinsic to Designed Computation”
The computing disciplines face difficult challenges by further scaling down CMOS technology. One solution path is to use an innovative combination of novel devices, compute paradigms, and architectures to create new information processing technology. Emerging biological and non-biological devices typically exhibit extreme physical variation, have a partially or entirely unknown structure with limited functional control, and often behave in time-dependent nonlinear ways, beyond a simple on/off switching behavior. In this talk I will present our research that focuses on a design space exploration of building information processing technology with spatially extended, heterogeneous, disordered, dynamical, and probabilistic devices that we cannot fully control and understand. I will present recent results on computing with such systems. We draw inspiration from the field of reservoir computing to obtain a "designed" computation from the "intrinsic" computing capabilities of the underlying device networks built from biological or non-biological components. We study the structural and functional influence of the underlying devices, their network, and the cost on the computing task performance and robustness. The goal is to find optima in the design space. The technological promise of harnessing intrinsic computation has enormous potential for cheaper, faster, more robust, and more energy-efficient information processing technology.
Christof Teuscher is a Professor at Portland State University, USA, with joint appointments in the Department of Computer Science and the Systems Science Graduate Program. He also holds an Adjunct Assistant Professor appointment in Computer Science at the University of New Mexico. His laboratory carries out research on emerging computing models and technologies.

Ron Cooke Hub, University of York

The workshop will be held in the Ron Cooke Hub, home to the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis and located at the University of York's newly developed Heslington East campus.


The University of York is situated in one the most beautiful cities in Europe (voted European Tourism City of the Year in 2007). Midway between the capital cities of London and Edinburgh, and with excellent transport links, the city has a 2000 year history, yet a modern outlook.

The city (then named Eboracum) was founded by the Romans. It has always been an important centre: it was one of the capitals of Roman Britain, and for a short period the entire Roman Empire was governed from York. In the ninth century CE, the city (then called Jorvik) was made the capital of most of northern England by the Vikings, and remainded so for most of the next eight hundred years.

Largely untouched by the industrial revolution, the centre of York today retains many period buildings, cobbled streets and pedestrian-only areas, lined with cafes and speciality shops. Tourism is now a major industry, and York is the second most-visited city in England (after London).

Travelling by Air

Manchester Airport is a large airport in the north of England, and has a wide range of international flights and connections via London. Trains run directly to York from the airport station and take just under 2 hours (see timetable). This is generally the most convenient option.

London Heathrow is the largest UK airport, with flights to a wide range of international destinations. Upon arrival, take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington station, then change to the Hammersmith and City underground line to reach King's Cross station (this takes about 30-45 minutes). Direct trains run frequently to York and take about 2 hours. London Gatwick, London Stansted and London Luton also have public transport connections to York.

Leeds-Bradford is the closest airport to York, and has some international flights. Taxis to York take around 45 minutes. Other nearby airports with public transport connections include Newcastle, Durham Tees Valley and Humberside.

Travelling by Rail

From Europe — York can be reached in around 5 hours from Paris or Brussels by train, by taking the Eurostar from Paris Nord to London St Pancras, with a short transfer (5 minute walk) to London Kings Cross for a direct rail service to York.

From the United Kingdom — York is on the East Coast main line from London to Edinburgh, just over two hours away from London King's Cross and around 2.5 hours from Edinburgh. There are also direct express services to many other major cities, including Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow.

If you would like to attend the Frontiers of Natural Computing workshop, please register your interest by emailing with the following information (please copy and paste and fill in as appropriate):

Full name:
Email address:
Student/academic/industry (delete as appropriate)
Main research areas of interest related to the Workshop:
Special Dietary needs:
Would you like to present a poster?: Yes/No

We have a limited number of poster slots for attendees who would like to present information about their research group or company. Please indicate whether or not you would be interested in doing this.

The workshop is sponsored by the EPSRC, and registration is free.

Hotels and Bed and Breakfast

York has a wide selection of hotels and B&Bs. However, as a major tourist destination, it is recommended that you book accommodation early. Please note that the university is approximately 2 miles from the city centre and is served by a very regular bus service.

Novotel York Centre (***) lies on the bus route to the university, and is also convenient for the city centre.

Park Inn by Radisson (***) is also near a bus stop, and is located in the city centre.

The York tourist office provides an accommodation search facility.

Accommodation on Campus

Accommodation is also available on the University of York campus. A search facility is available here. A panoromic view of typical accommodation is here.

York Terror Trail

The York Terror Trail is a walking tour around York's historic city centre with a historically-accurate guide to the grizzly events that occurred in the city's past.

Dinner at the National Railway Museum

This event will be held at one of the UK's most popular museums, the National Railway Museum. Dinner will be served in the great hall, amongst some of the world's most iconic locomotives.

You may also be interested in attending the UK Workshop on Computational Intelligence, which is being held in Edinburgh the week before this workshop, from 5th-7th September.

Slides and posters

The following slides and posters were contributed by speakers who presented at the workshop:

Martyn Amos, MMU
Martyn Amos, Computational Synthetic Biology
Wolfgang Banzhaf, MUN
Wolfgang Banzhaf, Genetic Programming and Emergence
Declan Baugh, Rince Institute
Declan Baugh, The Emergence of Pathological Constructors during von Neumann Self Reproduction
Larry Bull, UWE
Larry Bull, Transposons
Simon Davidson, Manchester
Simon Davidson, Cortically-inspired Associative Memory as a Basis for Generic Massively Parallel Computation
René Doursat, Malaga
René Doursat, Complex Systems and Morphogenetic Engineering: New Avenues Toward Self-Organized Architecture
Luis Fuente, York
Luis Fuente, Controlling Maps and Robots using Artificial Signalling Networks
Marian Gheorghe, Sheffield
Marian Gheorghe, Kernel P systems
Tomonori Hasegawa, Rince Institute
Tomonori Hasegawa, Self-referential Organisation within the Avida World
Michael Lones, York
Michael Lones, Artificial Biochemical Networks
Barry McMullin, Rince Institute
Barry McMullin, Architectures for Self-reproduction Resuming von Neumann’s Research Program in Natural Computing
Ricard Solé, UPF
Ricard Solé, Natural and Synthetic Biocomputers
Susan Stepney, York
Susan Stepney, Unconventional Computer Programming
Alexander Turner, York
Alexander Turner, The Control Of Non-Linear Dynamics Using Epigenetic Regulatory Networks

Invited speakers

Martyn Amos
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Wolfgang Banzhaf
Memorial University Newfoundland, Canada

Kwang-Hyun Cho
KAIST, South Korea

René Doursat
University of Malaga, Spain

Barry McMullin
Rince Institute, Ireland

Daniel Polani
University of Hertfordshire, UK

Ricard Solé
Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain

Christof Teuscher
Portland State University, USA


Michael Lones
Department of Electronic Engineering Engineering,
University of York

Andy Tyrrell
Department of Electronic Engineering Engineering,
University of York

Susan Stepney
Department of Computer Science,
University of York

Leo Caves
Department of Biology,
University of York

York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis

Submissions Due:

14th February 2012