When science and nature meet, you get as close to seeing magic as seemingly possible. Using a new age concept known as “wetware”, a team of researchers from the UK created a “living computer”, which utilizes a mushroom motherboard for power and data storage. The idea combines technology, mycology, and AI into what sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. But it’s not, this is real life, so let’s take a closer look at how it all works.
What is wetware?
The term wetware refers to the merging of hardware and software with some type of tissue from a living organism. It’s been relatively common topic in the comic and science-fiction world and we’ve seen it in popular shows like Star Trek, and video games like the Deus Ex franchise. Many well-known researchers acknowledge the role that science-fiction has played in piquing their curiosities about new topics, leading to exciting new discoveries and inventions.
There is even a book titled “Wetware”, written by American mathematician Rudy Rucker, in which he describes fictional concepts of integrating various forms of technologies into the human body. According to Rucker, wetware is “The data found in any biological system, analogous perhaps to the firmware that is found in a ROM chip. A seed, a plant graft, an embryo, or a biological virus are all wetware. DNA, the immune system, and the evolved neural architecture of the brain are further examples of wetware in this sense.”
And then we have wetware computers, like this new mushroom PC, which have numerous parts composed of organic material. Wetware computers are also sometimes referred to as artificial organic brains or neurocomputers. One of the primary differences between regular computers and wetware computers, is that the latter is said to function more like an AI system. Because of the dynamic nature of the living neurons they are made with, they are believed to have the ability to think for themselves, in a sense, and improve over time.
These ideas are still largely theoretical, but as you can see, the construction and prototyping of these computers is already in the works. Regardless, it raises questions about ethics and the future of computing. In some cases, the human brain itself could be connected to some type of wetware information system, like with brain-computer infaces (BCIs) that allow users to control external devices using brain signals. As exciting as that sounds, it’s also a bit terrifying and can have major social implications relating to private access to a person’s mind and thoughts.
The mushroom computer
A team of scientists from the Unconventional Computing Laboratory (UCL) from the University of the West of England recently unveiled their mushroom motherboard computer to Popular Science. Lead researcher, Professor Andrew Adamatzky, says he chose mushrooms for this project because their mycelium network acts very similarly to the human brain.
According to Adamatzky, “The neurons in the human brain utilize spiking activity for communication, and investigation shows that mycelium uses a similar model.” As a result, they are able to read the presence or absence of spikes and translate them into zeros or ones, just like binary code used in conventional computers.
Adamatzky’s team also found that the speed and accuracy of the communication could be increased by stimulating the mycelium at two separate points at once. This method enhanced conductivity and helped the mycelium develop memories, much like how the human brain forms habits.
In terms of overall performance, the mushroom computer is still no match for most standard competitors. However, since they have the ability to grow and evolve over time, that is subject to change. Another benefit is that mushroom PCs are eco-friendly and will help you save power, as they require minimal energy to use.
“Right now it’s just feasibility studies,” Adamatzky told Popular Science. “We’re just demonstrating that it’s possible to implement computation, and it’s possible to implement basic logical circuits and basic electronic circuits with mycelium. In the future, we can grow more advanced mycelium computers and control devices.”
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Mycelium – nature’s communication network
The reason the mushroom computer works is because of the mushrooms’ complex mycelium network. The mycelium network is made up of mycelia, thin hair-like parts of a fungus’s root system that can transmit electrical impulses, not unlike synapses. In fact, mushrooms connected to the same network of mycelia underground can sometimes communicate with electrical signals over substantial distances.
Mycelium is not exclusive to mushrooms. It’s found in most fungi and bacterial colonies. If you look at how mycelium forms, it almost resembles the tree of life, with long, thin filaments branching from a central stem. Individually, they are called hyphae, and collectively they are known as mycelium. Each fungal spore produces a mycelium, which is not capable of sexually reproducing until it finds another compatible mycelium. When two compatible mycelium connect, they form a dikaryotic mycelium, which can in turn produce a mushroom.
Most mycelia are found underground, but they are also present near the roots of various plants and around rotting wood. They play an incredibly important role in their ecosystems as a means for communication between various plants and organisms. As a matter of fact, roughly 92 percent of plants have a symbiotic relationship with these organisms, known as a mycorrhiza. The word “mycorrhiza” can be broken down into the Greek root words “mukès rhiza”, meaning “fungus root”.
Not all fungi form mycorrhizal relationships. Some saprophyte and parasitic mycelium do exist, which scavenge for food and/or absorb it from a living host. However, in a standard mycorrhizal connection, the fungus helps the plant absorb water and nutrients from the soil, while the plant provides the fungus with sugar from photosynthesis. Additionally, the fungi act as a defense mechanism for the plant, helping to shield it from pathogens as well as helping the plant more quickly trigger its own self-defense mechanisms.
Admittedly, there’s still a lot of work and research to be done on the topic. We’ll unlikely see the first fungal motherboard, much less a living computer populated by fungi, in a few years. The concept is interesting, though. In contrast to all the hype about AI, imagine speaking to your favorite mushroom to have it Google something.
The research may also lead to advancements in machine/brain interfacing, which has applications in the fields of prosthetics and behavior control disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
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