COSC 494/594

Unconventional Computation

Fall 2017


Bruce MacLennan [he/his/him]
Phone: 974-0994
Office: Min Kao 550
Office Hours: WF 2:30–3:30, or make an appointment
Email: maclennan AT

Classes: 3:35–4:25 MWF, MK 525

Directory of Handouts, Labs, etc.

This page:



Unconventional computation (or non-standard computation) refers to the use of non-traditional technologies and computing paradigms. As we approach the limits of Moore’s Law, progress in computation will depend on going beyond binary electronics and on exploring new paradigms and technologies for information processing and control. This course surveys some potential approaches to post-Moore’s Law computing.

Potential topics include quantum computation and quantum annealing; optical computing; analog computing; DNA, RNA, peptide, and general molecular computation; chemical computing; reaction-diffusion systems; liquid-state machines; amorphous computing; membrane computing and P systems; single organic molecule computing; computational mechanics; ballistic computing; reversible computing; spatial computation; cellular automata; cellular neural nets; neurocomputers; organic computation; natural computation; physarum computers; emergent computation; hypercomputation; non-Turing computation.


I intend this course to be accessible to all upper-division undergraduate and graduate students in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, physics, and similar disciplines. To get the most out of the course, undergraduate CS majors should have completed the 300-level required courses. Students will be expected to be familiar with linear algebra. If you have any questions about whether you should take this course, please email me. Students taking the course for graduate credit (COSC 594) will be expected to do specified additional work, including an in-class presentation.


There will be a mixture of homework, simulation experiments, and a term paper. Graduate students will be expected to do an in-class presentation. Occasional pop quizzes will count for 10% of your grade.



Student Learning Outcomes

Click here for pdf.


For Students with Disabilities
Students who have a disability that requires accommodation(s) should make an appointment with the Office of Disability Services (974-6087) to discuss their specific needs as well as schedule an appointment with me during my office hours.

Name and Pronoun Accommodations
If you use a name and/or pronouns other than what is in the course roll, please email me with the name and/or pronouns that you would like me to use and I will be glad to accommodate this request.

Tentative List of Topics

  1. Introduction [LNUC I (pdf); slides: pdf]
    1. Post-Moore’s law computing
    2. Embodied computing
    3. Super-Turing vs. non-Turing computation
  2. Physical information processing
    1. Energy dissipation [LNUC II.A–B]  
    2. Thermodynamics of computation  
    3. Reversible computing [LNUC II.C
  3. Quantum computation
    1. Mathematical preliminaries [LNUC III.A] (see also complex number review [FFC-ch4]) 
    2. Basic concepts from quantum theory [LNUC III.B.1–6
      1. Introduction  
      2. Postulates of QM
      3. Wave-particle duality (supplementary) 
      4. Superposition   
      5. No-cloning theorem
      6. Entanglement & EPR paradox
      7. Uncertainty principle (supplementary)  [LNUC III.B.7] - Updated!
    3. Quantum information
      1. Qubits & secure key distribution  [LNUC III.C.1- Updated!
      2. Quantum gates 
      3. Quantum circuits  
      4. Quantum gate arrays
      5. Quantum parallelism 
      6. Applications: Superdense coding and quantum teleportation  
      7. Universal quantum gates  
    4. Quantum algorithms
      1. Deutsch-Jozsa  
      2. Simon  
      3. Shor  
      4. Grover & heuristic search   
      5. Quantum error correction  
    5. Abrams-Lloyd theorem  
    6. Universal quantum computers (supplementary)   
      1. Feynman
      2. Benioff
      3. Deutsch
    7. Physical realizations  
    8. Quantum probability in cognition  

  4. Molecular computation
    1. Basic concepts  
      1. DNA basics
      2. DNA manipulation
    2. Filtering models
      1. Adleman  
      2. Lipton  
      3. Test tube programming language (supplementary)   
      4. Parallel filtering model (supplementary)
    3. Formal models  
      1. Sticker systems
      2. Splicing systems (supplementary)
    4. Enzymatic computation   
  5. Analog computation  (read sections A–B) 
    1. Computational power
    2. Computational complexity
    3. Analog solution of k-SAT 
  6. Spatial computation
    1. Cellular automata
    2. Cellular neural networks
    3. Computing with solitons etc.
    4. Reaction-diffusion computing
    5. Biocomputing
    6. Physarum machines
  7. Unstructured computation
    1. Liquid-state machines
    2. Reservoir computing
    3. Amorphous computing
    4. Blob computing
    5. Self-assembling systems
  8. Other potential topics
    1. Field computation
    2. Optical computing
    3. Carbon nanotubes
    4. Spintronics
    5. Relativistic computing
    6. Abstract geometrical computation
    7. Arithmetical hierarchy
    8. Algebraic TM computation
    9. Infinite-time computation


  1. Homework 1 due Sept. 15 (LNUC II.D). Do II.1 and 4–9
  2. Topics for term papers.


Online Resources

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Last updated:  2017-09-20.