Heather Barnett: What Humans Can Learn from Semi Intelligent Slime

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In this talk, courtesy of TED, artist Heather Barnett explains how she is inspired by biological design and self-organising systems. She works with Physarum polycephalum (commonly called slime mould), a eukaryotic microorganism that lives in cool, moist areas. Barnett used time-lapse photography to film the slime moulds behaviour in foraging for food.

Physarum polycephalum is one of 700 known slime moulds belonging to the kingdom of the amoeba. It is a single-celled organism, which joins with other cells to form a mass super-cell to maximize its resources. Within a slime mould there can be thousands or millions of nuclei, all sharing a cell wall, all operating as one entity.

The talk explains several pieces of scientific research into the behaviour of this organism, and how it has been viewed as a biological computer. As such, it has been mathematically modelled, and teams of researchers are trying to decode its biological principles to understand its computational rules and apply that learning to the fields of electronics, programming and robotics.

Inside the slime mould there is a vein-like structure carrying cellular material, nutrients and chemical information through the cell, streaming first in one direction and then back in another. And it is this continuous, synchronous oscillation within the cell that allows it to form quite a complex understanding of its environment, but without any large-scale control centre. This is where its intelligence lies.

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