Professors propose quest for systems that never fail

Two of the big computing issues - developing systems that never fail and getting computers to act like humans - have been...

Two of the big computing issues - developing systems that never fail and getting computers to act like humans - have been proposed as long-term research projects by a group of top UK university professors, writes John Kavanagh.

These projects, plus four other proposals in areas ranging from distributed systems to the modelling of plant and animal behaviour, have resulted from a workshop sponsored by the UK Computing Research Committee, a BCS expert panel, with support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The proposers of the research into dependable systems are in no doubt about their aim. "We propose to solve the dependability problem for evolving systems once and for all," they said.

Over 15 years, the professors propose projects to develop methods, tools and infrastructure to enable software "to be developed to be truly dependable, at lower costs and with less risk than today".

Another group aims to create "a computational architecture of the brain and mind which is inspired both by the neuronal architecture of the brain and high-level cognitive functioning in humans, captures the information processing principles present in the brain, and describes how low-level neuronal processes are linked and integrated with high-level cognitive capabilities such as adaptability, self-awareness and creativity".

The results could include a major contribution to work on mental disorders, and the laying of foundations for a radical new generation of machines which act more like humans.

Such systems could work as domestic robots, helping, for example, to care for disabled people, and provide new facilities for teaching and for intelligent access to information.

Two proposals relate to distributed systems to cope with ubiquitous computing, supporting the design of networks that can expand and handle a growing variety and number of devices.

The fast expanding amounts of information that people and organisations hold about themselves, including photographs, sound recordings, e-mails and web browsing histories, pose a challenge when it comes to managing and searching these different data forms.

This issue is the subject of another research proposal, which aims to broaden information access to disabled people and those with special educational needs by matching information systems to individuals' circumstances. Access to different types of information on individuals could also help in other areas, such as health care.

Another proposal is to develop computer models of life forms, using the growing mass of biological data. This could lead to experiments run on computers, and to models of the interaction of organisms and the social behaviour of different life forms.

Details of the proposals are available via, where there is an open discussion of each one until 26 May. A final report will then be prepared for the UK Computing Research Committee, which may then run workshops on each proposal and take projects to funding bodies.

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