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European researchers have proposed an idea for buildings that could compute. In the paper On buildings that compute. A proposal published this week, they have made proposals to integrate computation in various parts of a building, from cement and bricks to paint.

What is the idea about?

Smart homes today are made up of several individual smart appliances. They may work individually or be interconnected via a central hub. “What if intelligent matter of our surrounding could understand us humans?” The idea is that the walls of a building in addition to supporting the roof, had more functionality like sensing, calculating, communicating, and even producing power.

Each brick/block could be thought of as a decentralized computing entity. These blocks could contribute to a large-scale parallel computation. This would transform a smart building into an intelligent computing unit in which people can live in and interact with. Such smart buildings that compute, as the researchers say can potentially offer protection from crime, natural disasters, structural damage within the building, or simply send a greeting to the residing people.

When nanotechnology meets embedded computing

The proposal involves using nanotechnology to embed computation and sensing directly to the construction materials. This includes intelligent concrete blocks and using stimuli-responsive smart paint. The photo sensitive paint would sense the internal and external environment.

A nano-material infused concrete composition would sense the building environment to implement parallel information processing on a large scale. This will result in distributed decision making. The result is a building which can be seen as a huge parallel computer consisting of computing concrete blocks.

The key concepts used for the idea of smart buildings that compute are functional nanoparticles which are photo-, chemo- and electro-sensitive. A range of electrical properties will span all the electronic elements mixed in a concrete. The concrete is used to make the building blocks which are equipped with processors. These processors gather information from distributed sensory elements, helps in decision making, location communication and enables advanced computing. The blocks together form a wall which forms a huge parallel array processor.

They envision a single building or a small colony to turn into a large-scale universal computing unit.  This is an interesting idea, bizarre even. But the practicality of it is blurry. Can its applications justify the cost involved to create such a building? There is also a question of sustainability. How long will the building last before it has to be redeveloped? I for one think that doing so will almost certainly undo the computational aspect from it.

For more details, read the research paper.

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