These computers have mushrooms for brains

You may have recently heard of organoid intelligence: this revolutionary new form of computing that promises, in theory, to dethrone artificial intelligence. It consists in relying, no longer on processors, but on cultures of neurons to allow the computer to carry out its calculations. But today I would like to draw your attention to an even more exotic way of doing computing. Instead of creating new algorithms or trying to imitate the functioning of the human brain, English scientists have chosen to entrust the work of computers… to mushrooms.

This article is a written version of the podcast VitaminVitamin Tech, to be found on the Futura Podcast site and all the good listening platforms.

It’s in the Unconventional Computing Lab – a research space that doordoor aptly named – that researcher and director Andrew Adamatzky decided to explore how mushrooms could replace CPUs in the hypothetical future. The lab, attached to the University of the West of England in Bristol, has its usual set of immaculate benchtops, computers and measuring devices, but what sets it apart are the wooden boxes. plasticplastic that line up on its shelves. Inside, a strange white and vaporous material from which escapes a crowd of multicolored threads. A little further, tiny oyster mushrooms grow on a motherboard placed on one of the worktops. And we even see a piece of drinkdrink mossy covered with small Schizophylls, each connected to an electrode. Welcome to the UK’s only wet lab set up within an IT department!

Wetware computers : the organic future of computers

A wet lab, or more commonly an experimental lab, is a place where researchers work with chemicals, liquidsliquids or biological. Usually, it’s the kind of research you see little mixing with the design of computers, with their fragile components, running on electricity and generally preferring controlled environments. But if we want to enter a new technological era and break the glass ceiling that seems to be looming above our heads, we will have to question the foundations on which computing has been built until now. The paradigm on which we currently rely has allowed absolutely incredible and extremely rapid evolutions over the past decades. But many experts are now formal: technological innovation is losing ground speedspeed. Admittedly, we are still very far from having reached the limit of what we can accomplish, as evidenced by the unavoidable explosion of generative artificial intelligences, but for several researchers, it is already time to start exploring alternative lines of thought. to prepare for the next step.

And this is exactly the ambition which had been defended by Adamatzky, during the creation of the Laboratory of non-conventional calculation in 2001. For him, the computers of the coming century will be made up of chemical or living systems, operating in harmony with electronic circuits, screens, software, etc. This is called wetware computersof the ” wet computers if we tried to translate that literally. Does that sound completely futuristic to you? Imagine that one of the pioneering experiments in this field dates back to 1999, when the researcher William Ditto tried to build a proto-computer from neuronsneurons of leeches. What led Adamatzky on the trail of mushroomsmushrooms rather than those of blood-sucking critters, these are the studies he conducted for ten years on the blob. If you don’t know it, we told you about it in an old episode of our podcast “Science Beasts”, on theintelligenceintelligence animal. Here is what Marie had to say about it, from La Boîte à Curiosités: From his real name Physarum polycepahlum, it is a very terrestrial single-celled organism. Neither plant, nor fungus, nor even animal, it is said to be an amoebozoan. […] Furthermore, the blobblob is also the king of shortcuts: he always knows how to find the shortest path, whether in a straight line or through a winding maze. And it’s so good at laying out paths that engineers might even learn from it one day. »

Find our episode on the blob in the family podcast Bêtes de Science, dedicated to animal intelligence.

The Wood Wide Web gets involved

The amazing properties of the blob therefore led Adamatzky and his colleagues to test its computational capabilities. By using the right stimuli, they managed to prove that this unattractive species of gelatin could be used to solve problems, illustrate mathematical concepts and even be used to simulate logic gates which, without going into detail, form the blocks fundamentals of electronics. So, thinks Adamatzky, if the blob, formed from a single cell, is able to achieve such results, what could be accomplished with an entire network of mushrooms? Because yes, fungi are organized in a network, and let me tell you, their importance in our ecosystems is still largely underestimated by the general public. It is thanks to the work of enthusiasts like the biologist Merlin Sheldrake – whose reading I highly recommend – that the fascinating subterranean life of fungi is only just beginning to come to light.

Because if we mainly know these small organisms for the delicious omelettes and risottos that they allow us to simmer, we do not actually have under the eyeseyes only the tip of the iceberg. The fruit of the mushroom, that is to say the part that we pick – or that we avoid touching, depending on the situation – only forms the reproductive system of the animal. Enough to make you see your pan-fried chanterelles from another angle. The fungus continues to grow underground, well beyond where you are. It forms long fine and tangled filaments called mycelium, which it uses to feed itself but also to communicate. Invisible to our eyes, a gigantic and very dense carpet of ramifications connects the fungi to each other but also to the plants, with which they can maintain symbiotic relationships. We have barely begun to explore the facets of this InternetInternet vegetable and, already, it looks at least as promising as the blob. No wonder, then, that the Unconventional Computing Lab turned to mushrooms to revolutionize computers and in the process decode their language to learn more about what has been poetically dubbed “the Wood Wide Web”.

Mushrooms that think like neurons

So how do you learn to speak mushroom? Legitimate question and the good news is that we already have part of the answer. Because it turns out that the functioning of the mycelium is not entirely different from that of the network of neurons that populate our cranial boxes. Adamatzky and his team have indeed discovered that the mushrooms produce peaks similar to action potentialsaction potentials. An action potential is a variation that is measured in the electrical activity of a neuron when it communicates with its neighbors. It is visualized as a peak, followed by a drop in voltage, then a return to normal of its electrical activity. And, amazingly, well, the mushrooms in the lab seem to communicate through action potentials, very similar to the ones that let you listen to this podcast. From there to say: it’s not a man, it’s a mushroom may be pushing the envelope a bit, but it still means researchers are dealing with a more familiar mode of communication than one might expect.

So they got to work, snuggling cultures of mycelium into boxes filled with hemp and wood shavings, then planting electrodes in the colony once grown so they could read the electrical pulses of sound…” spirit”, for lack of a better term. A peak can thus be read as a 1 and its absence as a 0 and the foundations of a 100% organic binary system are laid! The duration of the peaks and the time interval separating them from each other were coded then associated with logic gates to obtain a proto-computer capable of carrying out reasoning. And cherrycherry on the cake: if you stimulate the mycelium at two different points, the conductivity between these points increases and they begin to communicate faster and more reliably. By strengthening this link, the laboratory team thus creates a habit, an automatism that can simply be described as memory. Not bad is not it ?

Towards a hybrid intelligence of computers

It is on this same principle that researchers hope to develop a new form of so-called “organoid” intelligence, this time using cultures of three-dimensional neurons. An evolution promising enough to make headlines for several weeks, but which does not prevent us from looking into the potentialities of the mycelium, which deserves at least as much attention. So far, Adamatzky’s team has worked with oyster mushrooms, ghost mushrooms, resinous ganoderms, enokis, gillsgills split or still specimens the species Cordyceps militarisincluding fans of The Last of Us will normally have deduced that it is a parasitic fungus. Although they will probably never reach the computational speed of conventional computers, fungal computers are not without their advantages. In particular, they could be more tolerant of failures, thanks to their self-healing capacity. The fact that they are constantly growing and evolving also makes them reconfigurable at will, according to the new functionalities that researchers wish to implement.

And finally, the latest technological innovations, as impressive as they are, still have a long, long way to go before achieving the energy efficiency that nature knows how to demonstrate. Remember, I told you about it in an old episode of Vitamine Tech, when it was still called Techpod: ” To utter these words you hear, my brainbrain barely uses between 10 and 20 W, according to estimates. This is less than the most economical incandescent bulbs. Let’s be clear, you need more energy to light your living room than to perform the hundreds of operations that your brain performs every second. All that said, let’s not get too excited – me first. Adamatzky points out that they are only at the stage of feasibility studies for the moment. The objective is first of all to prove that it would be potentially possible to create circuits from micellar cultures. However, he too does not seem devoid of enthusiasm since he is already imagining cultures of computers in the lab and perhaps even mushroom-based brains. The interview of the researcher by the site PopSci does not tell us if he intends to make them edible or poisonous.