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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Fall 02
Special Subject

MIT 6.978: Biologically Motivated Programming Technology for Robust Systems

H level (2-0-10)
Instructors: Hal Abelson, Radhika Nagpal, Gerald Jay Sussman
Class meetings: Tuesday 3-5 in room 34-301
Permission of instructor required

A colony of cells cooperates to form a multicellular organism under the direction of a common genetic program. A swarm of bees cooperates to construct a hive. Engineers envision building self-organizing networks, creating vast distributed sensor systems, and even harnessing biological cells as a new computational substrate. These examples raise fundamental questions for the organization of computing systems:

  • How do we engineer robust behavior from the cooperation of vast numbers of unreliable parts, that are interconnected in unknown, irregular, and time-varying ways?

This seminar will provide an introduction to research on new algorithms, principles, and programming languages for achieving coherent, reliable, and complex behavior from the cooperation of large numbers of identically programmed agents. A major source of metaphors for this technology comes from biology. For example, during development, cells with identical DNA cooperate to form incredibly complex structures, in the face of large variations in cell behavior. Even after development, these systems show incredible abilities for self-repair and regeneration.

Students will review relevant literature from both computer science and biology and undertake and report on a semester-length original research project.

Advanced undergraduates are welcome in the course with permission of instructor. This is an advanced graduate level subject, and so does not qualify as a Course 6 engineering concentration subject.

To get instructor  approval: please send email to  Prof. Abelson, Dr. Nagpal, and Prof. Sussman ASAP . Your place is not guaranteed until you recieve an email back to confirm that you have been accepted into the course.

Upcoming Workshops and Journals

Reading List (developing)

Amorphous Computing:
Robustness in Developmental Biology: Models of Pattern Formation: Programming Modular Robots: