At first glance, the Unconventional Computing Laboratory looks like an ordinary workspace, with computers and scientific instruments lining its clean, smooth countertops. But if you look closely, the anomalies begin to emerge. A series of videos shared with PopSci show the strange quirks of this research: Atop the cluttered desks are large plastic containers with electrodes protruding from a foam-like substance and a massive motherboard with tiny oyster mushrooms growing on top.
No, this lab is not trying to recreate scenes from “The Last of Us”. The researchers there have been working on this sort of thing for a while: It was founded in 2001 with the belief that the computers of the next century will be made of chemical or living systems, or wet materials, that will work in harmony with hardware and hardware. software.
Why? Integrating these complex dynamics and system architectures into computing infrastructure would, in theory, enable information to be processed and analyzed in new ways. And it’s definitely an idea that’s gained ground recently, seen through experimental biology-based algorithms and prototype microbe sensors and kombucha circuit boards.
In other words, they are trying to see if fungi can perform computational and sensing functions.
With mushroom computers, the mycelium – the mushroom’s branched, net-like root structure – acts as a conductor as well as the electronic components of a computer. (Remember, the mushroom is just the fruiting body of the mushroom.) They can receive and send electrical signals, as well as retain memory.
“I mix mycelium cultures with hemp or with wood shavings and then place it in closed plastic boxes and let the mycelium colonize the substrate, so everything then looks white,” says Andrew Adamatzky, director of the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. “Then we insert electrodes and record the electrical activity of the mycelium. So through the stimulation there is electrical activity, and then we get the response.” He notes that this is the UK’s only wet lab – one where chemical, liquid or biological substances are present – in any computer science department.
The classic computers today see problems as binaries: the ones and zeros that represent the traditional approach these devices use. However, most real-world dynamics cannot always be captured through that system. This is why researchers are working with technologies such as quantum computers (which can better simulate molecules) and living brain cell-based chips (which can better mimic neural networks), because they can represent and process information in different ways, using a series of complex, multidimensional functions and provide more accurate calculations for certain problems.
Already, scientists know that fungi stay connected to the environment and organisms around them by using a kind of “internet” communication. You may have heard this called the wood wide web. By deciphering the language fungi use to send signals through this biological network, scientists may not only be able to gain insights into the state of underground ecosystems, but also harness them to improve our own information systems.
Sponge computers can offer some advantages over conventional computers. While they can never match the speeds of today’s modern machines, they can be more fault-tolerant (they can self-regenerate), reconfigurable (they grow and evolve naturally), and consume very little energy.
Before stumbling upon fungi, Adamatzky worked on slime mold computers — yes, that means using slime molds to perform computer problems — from 2006 to 2016. Physarumas slime mold is scientifically called, is an amoeba-like creature that spreads its mass amorphously across space.
Slime molds are “intelligent”, which means they can work around problems, such as finding the shortest path through a maze, without programmers giving them precise instructions or parameters about what to do. Yet they can also be controlled by various types of stimuli and used to simulate logic gates, which are the basic building blocks of circuits and electronics.
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Much of the work on slime shapes was done on so-called “Steiner tree” or “span tree” problems that are important in network design, and are solved using pathfinding optimization algorithms. “With slime mold, we imitated paths and roads. We even published a book on bio-evaluation of road transport networks,” says Adamatzky. “We also solved many problems with computational geometry. We also used slime molds to control robots.”
After finishing his slime mold projects, Adamatzky wondered if something interesting would happen if they started working with fungi, an organism both similar and very different, Physarum. “We actually found that fungi produce action potential-like spikes. The same spikes that neurons produce,” he says. “We are the first lab to report spike activity in fungi measured with microelectrodes, and the first to develop mushroom computers and mushroom electronics.”
In the brain, neurons use spiking activities and patterns to communicate signals, and this property has been mimicked to create artificial neural networks. Mycel does something similar. This means that researchers can use the presence or absence of a spike as their zero or one, and encode the different timing and spacing of the spikes detected to correlate with the different gates seen in computer programming languages (or, and, etc). Furthermore, if you stimulate the mycelium at two separate points, the conductivity between them increases, and they communicate faster and more reliably, which allows the memory to be established. This is like how brain cells form habits.
Mycelium with different geometries can compute different logic functions, and they can map these circuits based on the electrical responses they get from it. “If you send electrons, they will increase,” says Adamatzky. “It is possible to implement neuromorphic circuits… We can say that I plan to make a mushroom brain.”
So far they have worked with oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus girls)ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis)attached fungi (Ganoderma resinaceum)Enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes)split gill mushroom (Schizophyllum commone) and larval fungi (Cordyceps militari).
– Right now it’s just preliminary studies. “We’re just showing that it’s possible to implement computation, and it’s possible to implement basic logic circuits and basic electronic circuits with mycelium,” says Adamatzky. “In the future, we can grow more advanced mycelium computers and controllers.”
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