Mechanical mechanisms have been used to process information for millennia, with famous examples ranging from the Antikythera mechanism of the Ancient Greeks to the analytical machines of Charles Babbage. More recently, electronic forms of computation and information processing have overtaken these mechanical forms, owing to better potential for miniaturization and integration. However, several unconventional computing approaches have recently been introduced, which blend ideas of information processing, materials science and robotics. This has raised the possibility of new mechanical computing systems that augment traditional electronic computing by interacting with and adapting to their environment. Here we discuss the use of mechanical mechanisms, and associated nonlinearities, as a means of processing information, with a view towards a framework in which adaptable materials and structures act as a distributed information processing network, even enabling information processing to be viewed as a material property, alongside traditional material properties such as strength and stiffness. We focus on approaches to abstract digital logic in mechanical systems, discuss how these systems differ from traditional electronic computing, and highlight the challenges and opportunities that they present.
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