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This is a story I've been trying to find for years. A scientist has built some sort of computer that is a vat of liquid chemicals. It automatically evolves programs by growing conductive veins through the vat of liquid. The basis of how it worked was basic chemical reactions and physics, that is, by "evolution" I mean some sort of selective trial and error process, and by "grow" I'm just referring to a chemical reaction where something accumulates. Think of a beaker in a chemistry lab with a few wires going in for inputs.

As a warning, this may or may not have been a fictional story. For a long time I thought it was non-fiction but recently I'm thinking it might have been some sort of hard sci-fi I read. Hopefully it was at least one or the other and not a dream I had.

This was in English, I believe it was something I read but it could have also been radio, my memory of it is more than 3 years old, probably more than 5 years old, but less than 10 years old.

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    I could be wrong, but AFAIK we're not that far yet. Ergo, it must be a SF story. – Mr Lister Jan 1 '17 at 18:12
  • Please try to add anything that may help identification. Review this checklist. When did you read it? What language was it in? Are there any other plot details you remember or descriptions of scenes or characters you can give? Anything at all? Feel free to edit any additional details into the question. – Paulie_D Jan 1 '17 at 18:18
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    Do you remember if there were two computers in separate vessels that tried to stablish communications by growing veins from one vat to other? It may be from a story by Stanislaw Lem. – Ginasius Jan 1 '17 at 19:42
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    @Ginasius I don't specifically recall that, but that sounds really cool. – Praxeolitic Jan 1 '17 at 19:55
  • That's a bit like Greg Egan's Wang's Carpets, only not so meta. – David Tonhofer Sep 10 '20 at 10:18
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This reminds me of the electrochemical machines tried by cybernetics researcher Gordon Pask. See page 58 of "The Architectural Relevance of Gordon Pask" https://www.haque.co.uk/papers/architectural_relevance_of_gordon_pask.pdf by Usman Haque, and page 201 of "Gordon Pask and his Maverick Machines" http://users.sussex.ac.uk/~ezequiel/Husbands_08_Ch08_185-212.pdf by Jon Bird and Ezequiel Di Paolo.

There's also a paper by Peter Cariani, "To evolve an ear: Epistemological implications of Gordon Pask's electrochemical devices", with copies on ResearchGate at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227722393_To_evolve_an_ear_Epistemological_implications_of_Gordon_Pask%27s_electrochemical_devices and Wiley (paywalled) at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/sres.3850100305. Googling "Gordon Pask electrochemical" will find other references.

Here's a diagram from the Cariani paper: Diagram of Gordon Pask electrochemical "computer": "Figure 1. Pask's schematic indicating the relationship between the electrode array and the ferrous sulphate medium". A Google image search will find several other such diagrams.

Pask's ideas were well-publicised: see for example Thomas Dreher's description at http://iasl.uni-muenchen.de/links/GCA-II.3e.html of the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in London ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetic_Serendipity ). This and my other references describe some fascinating work. It's very possible that an SF writer could come across them and write a story such as you describe. However, you do say As a warning, this may or may not have been a fictional story. For a long time I thought it was non-fiction. As I've just shown, you were correct, although these machines never made it into the mainstream of computing. That's a shame: we could still learn from Pask's work.

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  • Never heard of that researcher. This is squarely in the domain of what is today called "Artificial Life" (which may use actual physical setups or perform simulations in digital computers), and indeed we find in the Proceedings of Alife 2019: Steering the Growth of Adaptive Self-Preserving Dissipative Structures. – David Tonhofer Sep 10 '20 at 10:13
  • Your Alife 2019 abstract mentions Pask: "In the 1950s, famous cyberneticists Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer did remarkable electrochemical deposition experiments. Applying voltage across electrodes in acidic ferrous sulfate biassed electrochemical deposition to form structures including sensory structures which could distinguish different sounds. Unfortunately, details are unavailable: their experiment has not been replicated, and the precise mechanisms of their results remain unknown. Preliminary toward recreating their remarkable results, this paper presents a new computational model [...]" – Phil van Kleur Sep 10 '20 at 10:39
  • Yes, I was doing a search for "Artificial Life" and "Gordon Pask" and this is one of the results. – David Tonhofer Sep 10 '20 at 12:21
  • Ah, thanks. I didn't have room to comment further, as I'd hit the comment character limit. It's good that someone is trying to find out what was going on in Pask's work. Make several nice student projects, actually. – Phil van Kleur Sep 10 '20 at 18:37

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