February 27, 2024

A look inside the laboratory that builds mushroom computers

At first glance, the Unconventional Computing Laboratory looks like a normal workspace, with computers and scientific instruments lined up on its clean, smooth countertops. But if you look closely, anomalies begin to appear. A series of videos shared with pop science show the strange peculiarities of this research: on top of the cluttered desks, there are large plastic containers with electrodes protruding from a foam-like substance, and a huge motherboard with tiny oyster mushrooms growing on top.

No, this lab is not trying to recreate scenes from “The Last of Us.” Researchers have been working on things like this for some time: It was founded in 2001 with the belief that computers of the next century will be made of chemical or living systems, or wet software, that will work in harmony with hardware and software.

Because? Integrating these complex system dynamics and architectures into computing infrastructure could, in theory, allow information to be processed and analyzed in new ways. And it’s definitely an idea that’s been gaining traction recently, as seen through experimental biology-based algorithms and microbial sensor prototypes and kombucha circuit boards.

In other words, they are trying to see if fungi can perform computing and sensory functions.

A mushroom-shaped base plate. Andres Adamatzky

In the case of fungal computers, the mycelium (the branching, network-like root structure of the fungus) acts as both a conductor and the electronic component of a computer. (Remember, mushrooms are just the fruiting body of the fungus.) They can receive and send electrical signals, as well as retain memory.

“I mix mycelium cultures with hemp or wood chips, and then I put them in closed plastic boxes and let the mycelium colonize the substrate, so everything looks white,” says Andrew Adamatzky, director of the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. “Then we inserted electrodes and recorded the electrical activity of the mycelium. “So through stimulation, it becomes electrical activity and then we get the response.” He points out that this is the UK’s only wet lab (one where there is chemical, liquid or biological matter) in any IT department.

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Preparing to record the dynamics of electrical resistance of hemp shavings colonized by oyster mushrooms. Andres Adamatzky

Today’s classical computers view problems as binary: 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 on technologies like quantum computers (which could better simulate molecules) and chips based on living brain cells (which could better mimic neural networks), because they can represent and process information. in different ways, using a series of complex and multidimensional functions and provides more precise calculations for certain problems.

Scientists already know that fungi remain connected to the environment and the organisms around them through a kind of “Internet” communication. You may have heard of this as the wood web. By deciphering the language that fungi use to send signals through this biological network, scientists could not only obtain information about the state of underground ecosystems, but also harness them to improve our own information systems.

cordyceps mushrooms
An illustration of the fruit bodies of Cordyceps mushrooms. Irina Petrova Adamatzky

Mushroom computers could offer some advantages over conventional computers. Although they will never be able to match the speeds of today’s modern machines, they could be more fault-tolerant (they can self-heal), reconfigurable (they grow and evolve naturally), and consume very little energy.

Before running into fungus, Adamatzky worked on slime mold computers (yes, that involves using slime mold to carry out computer problems) from 2006 to 2016. fisarumAs slime mold is scientifically called, it is an amoeba-like creature that spreads its mass amorphously through space.

Slime molds are “intelligent,” meaning they can solve problems, such as finding the shortest path through a maze, without programmers giving them exact instructions or parameters about what to do. However, they can also be controlled by different types of stimuli and used to simulate logic gates, which are the basic components of circuits and electronics.

[Related: What Pong-playing brain cells can teach us about better medicine and AI]

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Recording of electrical potential peaks of hemp shavings colonized by oyster mushrooms. Andres Adamatzky

Much of the work with slime molds was done on what are known as “Steiner tree” or “spanning tree” problems, which are important in network design and are solved using search optimization algorithms. routes. “With slime mold we imitate roads and paths. We even published a book on the bioassessment of road transport networks,” says Adamatzky. “In addition, we solved many problems with the calculation geometry. “We also use slime molds to control the robots.”

When he finished his projects on slime mold, Adamatzky wondered if something interesting would happen if they started working with fungi, an organism that is both similar and wildly different. fisarum. “We actually found that fungi produce spikes similar to action potentials. The same spikes that neurons produce,” she says. “We are the first laboratory to report increased fungal activity measured with microelectrodes, and the first to develop fungal computing and electronics.”

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An example of how the nailing activity can be used to make doors. Andres Adamatzky

In the brain, neurons use activities and spiking patterns to communicate signals, and this property has been imitated to create artificial neural networks. Mycelium does something similar. That means researchers can use the presence or absence of a spike such as zero or one, and encode the different times and spacing of the spikes that are detected to correlate them with the various gates seen in the computer programming language (or, and , etc.). Furthermore, if the mycelium is stimulated at two separate points, the conductivity between them increases and they communicate more quickly and reliably, allowing memory to be established. This is how brain cells form habits.

Mycelium with different geometries can calculate different logical functions and can map these circuits based on the electrical responses they receive from it. “If you send electrons, they will shoot out,” Adamatzky says. “It is possible to implement neuromorphic circuits… We can say that I am planning to make a brain out of mushrooms.”

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Hemp shavings in the shape of a brain, injected with chemicals. Andres Adamatzky

Until now they have worked with oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus djamor)ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis)mushrooms in square brackets (Ganoderma resinaceum)Enoki mushrooms (flammulina velutipes)split gill mushrooms (Schizophyllum commune) and caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps militari).

“For now these are just feasibility studies. “We are simply showing that it is possible to implement computing and that it is possible to implement basic logic circuits and basic electronic circuits with mycelium,” says Adamatzky. “In the future, we will be able to develop more advanced computers and mycelium control devices.”

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