A look inside the laboratory building of mushroom computers

At first glance, the Unconventional Computing Laboratory looks like a normal workspace, with computers and scientific instruments on its clean, smooth countertops. But if you look closely, the anomalies start to appear. A series of videos shared with PopSci show the odd quirks of this research: cluttered desks have large plastic containers with electrodes protruding from a foam-like substance, and a massive motherboard with tiny oyster mushrooms growing on it.

No, this lab is not trying to recreate scenes from The Last of Us. Researchers there have been working on things like this for a long time: it was founded in 2001 with the conviction that the computers of the coming century will consist of chemical or living systems or wetware that work in harmony with hardware and software.

Why? The integration of these complex dynamics and system architectures into computing infrastructure could theoretically allow information to be processed and analyzed in new ways. And it’s definitely an idea that’s been gaining traction lately, as evidenced by experimental biology-based algorithms and prototype microbe sensors and kombucha circuit boards.

In other words, they’re trying to figure out if mushrooms can perform arithmetic functions.

A mushroom motherboard. Andreas Adamatzky

In mushroom computers, the mycelium—the fungus’s branching, web-like root structure—functions as both the conductor and the electronic component of a computer. (Remember, mushrooms are just the fruiting body of the mushroom.) They can send and receive electrical signals, as well as retain memory.

“I mix cultures of mycelium with hemp or with wood chips and then put them in closed plastic boxes and let the mycelium colonize the substrate so that everything looks white,” says Andrew Adamatzky, director of the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Great Britain. “Then we insert electrodes and record the electrical activity of the mycelium. So with the stimulation it becomes electrical activity, and then we get the response.” He notes that this is the only wet lab in the UK – one that has chemical, liquid or biological stuff in it – in a computer science department.

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Preparation for recording the dynamics of electrical resistance of hemp shavings colonized by oyster mushrooms. Andreas Adamatzky

Today’s classic computers see problems as binaries: the ones and zeros that represent the traditional approach of these devices. However, most dynamics in the real world cannot always be captured by this system. For this reason, researchers are working on technologies such as quantum computers (which could better simulate molecules) and live brain cell-based chips (which could 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 specific problems.

Scientists already know that fungi stay in touch with the environment and the organisms around them through a form of “internet” communication. You may have heard this referred to as the Wood Wide Web. By deciphering the language that fungi use to send signals through this biological network, scientists could not only gain insights into the state of subterranean ecosystems and use them to improve our own information systems.

An illustration of the fruiting bodies of Cordyceps mushrooms. Irina Petrova Adamatzky

Mushroom computers could offer some advantages over traditional computers. While they will never be able to match the speed of today’s modern machines, they could be more fault-tolerant (they can regenerate themselves), reconfigurable (they grow and evolve naturally), and consume very little power.

Before he found mushrooms, Adamatzky worked on slime mold computers from 2006 to 2016 — yes, that involves using slime molds to solve arithmetic problems. Physarum, as slime molds are scientifically called, is an amoeba-like creature that spreads its mass shapelessly across space.

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Slime molds are “intelligent,” meaning they can find their way around problems such as: B. finding the shortest path through a maze without programmers giving them precise instructions or parameters as to what to do. However, they can also be controlled by different types of stimuli and used to simulate logic gates, which are the basic building blocks of circuits and electronics.

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

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

Much of the work with slime molds has been done on so-called “Steiner Tree” or “Spanning Tree” problems, which are important to network design and are solved using pathfinding optimization algorithms. “We used slime molds to imitate paths and roads. We even published a book on the bio-assessment of road networks,” says Adamatzky. “We also solved many problems with computational geometry. We also used slime molds to control robots.”

By the time he had completed his slime mold projects, Adamatzky wondered if anything interesting would happen if they started working with fungi, an organism that is both similar and completely different to Physarum. “We actually found that fungi produce action potential-like spikes. The same spikes that neurons produce,” he says. “We are the first laboratory to report fungal spiking activity measured by microelectrodes and the first to develop mushroom computers and mushroom electronics.”

An example of how spiking activity can be used to create gates. Andreas Adamatzky

In the brain, neurons use spiking activities and patterns to communicate signals, and this trait has been mimicked to create artificial neural networks. Mycelium does something similar. This means researchers can use the presence or absence of a peak as a zero or one, and code the different timing and spacing of the detected peaks to correlate with the various gates seen in the computer programming language (or, and, etc.). are. If you stimulate the mycelium at two separate points, the conductivity between them increases and they communicate faster and more reliably, which can help build memory. This is how brain cells form habits.

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Mycelium with different geometries can compute different logical functions, and they can map these circuits based on the electrical responses they get from them. “If you send electrons, they will spike,” says Adamatzky. “It’s possible to implement neuromorphic circuits… We can say that I intend to make a brain out of mushrooms.”

Hemp shavings sculpting a brain injected with chemicals. Andreas Adamatzky

So far they have worked with oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus djamor), ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis), bracket fungi (Ganoderma resinaceum), enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes), fission gill mushrooms (Schizophyllum commune) and caterpillar mushrooms (Cordyceps militari). .

“Right now it’s just feasibility studies. We’re just demonstrating that it’s possible to implement computation and that it’s possible to implement basic logic circuits and basic electronic circuits with mycelium,” says Adamatzky. “In the future, we can breed more advanced mycelial computers and controllers.”