English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDSalon Berlin 2014

Heather Barnett: What humans can learn from semi-intelligent slime

Filmed
Views 958,548

Inspired by biological design and self-organizing systems, artist Heather Barnett co-creates with physarum polycephalum, a eukaryotic microorganism that lives in cool, moist areas. What can people learn from the semi-intelligent slime mold? Watch this talk to find out.

- Artist
Heather Barnett creates art with slime mold -- a material used in diverse areas of scientific research, including biological computing, robotics and structural design. Full bio

I'd like to introduce you to an organism:
00:12
a slime mold, Physarum polycephalum.
00:15
It's a mold with an identity
crisis, because it's not a mold,
00:19
so let's get that straight to start with.
00:22
It is one of 700 known slime molds
00:23
belonging to the kingdom of the amoeba.
00:26
It is a single-celled organism, a cell,
00:28
that joins together with other cells
00:31
to form a mass super-cell
00:33
to maximize its resources.
00:35
So within a slime mold you might find thousands
00:37
or millions of nuclei,
00:40
all sharing a cell wall,
00:42
all operating as one entity.
00:44
In its natural habitat,
00:47
you might find the slime mold foraging in woodlands,
00:48
eating rotting vegetation,
00:51
but you might equally find it
00:55
in research laboratories,
00:56
classrooms, and even artists' studios.
00:58
I first came across the slime
mold about five years ago.
01:02
A microbiologist friend of mine
01:05
gave me a petri dish with a little yellow blob in it
01:07
and told me to go home and play with it.
01:10
The only instructions I was given,
01:13
that it likes it dark and damp
01:15
and its favorite food is porridge oats.
01:17
I'm an artist who's worked for many years
01:21
with biology, with scientific processes,
01:23
so living material is not uncommon for me.
01:26
I've worked with plants, bacteria,
01:29
cuttlefish, fruit flies.
01:31
So I was keen to get my new collaborator home
01:32
to see what it could do.
01:35
So I took it home and I watched.
01:36
I fed it a varied diet.
01:40
I observed as it networked.
01:42
It formed a connection between food sources.
01:44
I watched it leave a trail behind it,
01:47
indicating where it had been.
01:49
And I noticed that when it was
fed up with one petri dish,
01:51
it would escape and find a better home.
01:54
I captured my observations
01:57
through time-lapse photography.
01:59
Slime mold grows at about one centimeter an hour,
02:01
so it's not really ideal for live viewing
02:03
unless there's some form of
really extreme meditation,
02:06
but through the time lapse,
02:09
I could observe some really interesting behaviors.
02:11
For instance, having fed on a nice pile of oats,
02:14
the slime mold goes off to explore new territories
02:18
in different directions simultaneously.
02:22
When it meets itself,
02:25
it knows it's already there,
02:27
it recognizes it's there,
02:29
and instead retreats back
02:31
and grows in other directions.
02:33
I was quite impressed by this feat,
02:36
at how what was essentially
just a bag of cellular slime
02:39
could somehow map its territory,
02:42
know itself, and move with seeming intention.
02:45
I found countless scientific studies,
02:49
research papers, journal articles,
02:53
all citing incredible work with this one organism,
02:55
and I'm going to share a few of those with you.
02:59
For example, a team in Hokkaido University in Japan
03:01
filled a maze with slime mold.
03:04
It joined together and formed a mass cell.
03:06
They introduced food at two points,
03:08
oats of course,
03:10
and it formed a connection
03:11
between the food.
03:13
It retracted from empty areas and dead ends.
03:15
There are four possible routes through this maze,
03:17
yet time and time again,
03:20
the slime mold established the shortest
03:22
and the most efficient route.
03:24
Quite clever.
03:27
The conclusion from their experiment
03:28
was that the slime mold had
a primitive form of intelligence.
03:30
Another study exposed cold air at
regular intervals to the slime mold.
03:33
It didn't like it. It doesn't like it cold.
03:36
It doesn't like it dry.
03:39
They did this at repeat intervals,
03:40
and each time, the slime mold
03:42
slowed down its growth in response.
03:44
However, at the next interval,
03:47
the researchers didn't put the cold air on,
03:49
yet the slime mold slowed down in anticipation
03:52
of it happening.
03:55
It somehow knew that it was about the time
03:56
for the cold air that it didn't like.
03:59
The conclusion from their experiment
04:01
was that the slime mold was able to learn.
04:02
A third experiment:
04:06
the slime mold was invited
04:07
to explore a territory covered in oats.
04:09
It fans out in a branching pattern.
04:13
As it goes, each food node it finds,
04:16
it forms a network, a connection to,
04:18
and keeps foraging.
04:21
After 26 hours, it established
04:23
quite a firm network
04:25
between the different oats.
04:27
Now there's nothing remarkable in this
04:29
until you learn that the center oat that it started from
04:31
represents the city of Tokyo,
04:33
and the surrounding oats are
suburban railway stations.
04:35
The slime mold had replicated
04:39
the Tokyo transport network
04:42
— (Laughter) —
04:44
a complex system developed over time
04:46
by community dwellings, civil
engineering, urban planning.
04:49
What had taken us well over 100 years
04:53
took the slime mold just over a day.
04:55
The conclusion from their experiment
04:58
was that the slime mold can form efficient networks
05:00
and solve the traveling salesman problem.
05:02
It is a biological computer.
05:05
As such, it has been mathematically modeled,
05:07
algorithmically analyzed.
05:10
It's been sonified, replicated, simulated.
05:11
World over, teams of researchers
05:14
are decoding its biological principles
05:17
to understand its computational rules
05:20
and applying that learning
to the fields of electronics,
05:22
programming and robotics.
05:24
So the question is,
05:27
how does this thing work?
05:29
It doesn't have a central nervous system.
05:31
It doesn't have a brain,
05:33
yet it can perform behaviors
05:35
that we associate with brain function.
05:36
It can learn, it can remember,
05:38
it can solve problems, it can make decisions.
05:40
So where does that intelligence lie?
05:43
So this is a microscopy, a video I shot,
05:46
and it's about 100 times magnification,
05:48
sped up about 20 times,
05:51
and inside the slime mold,
05:54
there is a rhythmic pulsing flow,
05:56
a vein-like structure carrying
05:59
cellular material, nutrients and chemical information
06:01
through the cell,
06:05
streaming first in one direction
and then back in another.
06:07
And it is this continuous, synchronous oscillation
06:10
within the cell that allows it to form
06:14
quite a complex understanding of its environment,
06:17
but without any large-scale control center.
06:20
This is where its intelligence lies.
06:23
So it's not just academic researchers
06:25
in universities that are interested in this organism.
06:29
A few years ago, I set up SliMoCo,
06:31
the Slime Mould Collective.
06:34
It's an online, open, democratic network
06:37
for slime mold researchers and enthusiasts
06:40
to share knowledge and experimentation
06:42
across disciplinary divides
06:45
and across academic divides.
06:48
The Slime Mould Collective
membership is self-selecting.
06:51
People have found the collective
06:55
as the slime mold finds the oats.
06:58
And it comprises of scientists
07:01
and computer scientists and researchers
07:03
but also artists like me,
07:04
architects, designers, writers, activists, you name it.
07:07
It's a very interesting, eclectic membership.
07:12
Just a few examples:
07:16
an artist who paints with fluorescent Physarum;
07:17
a collaborative team
07:20
who are combining biological and electronic design
07:22
with 3D printing technologies in a workshop;
07:26
another artist who is using the slime mold
07:29
as a way of engaging a community
07:31
to map their area.
07:33
Here, the slime mold is being used directly
07:36
as a biological tool, but metaphorically
07:38
as a symbol for ways of talking
07:41
about social cohesion, communication
07:43
and cooperation.
07:47
Other public engagement activities,
07:49
I run lots of slime mold workshops,
07:51
a creative way of engaging with the organism.
07:53
So people are invited to come and learn
07:56
about what amazing things it can do,
07:58
and they design their own petri dish experiment,
08:00
an environment for the slime mold to navigate
08:02
so they can test its properties.
08:04
Everybody takes home a new pet
08:06
and is invited to post their results
08:09
on the Slime Mould Collective.
08:12
And the collective has enabled me
08:14
to form collaborations
08:15
with a whole array of interesting people.
08:18
I've been working with filmmakers
08:20
on a feature-length slime mold documentary,
08:22
and I stress feature-length,
08:25
which is in the final stages of edit
08:28
and will be hitting your cinema screens very soon.
08:30
(Laughter)
08:33
It's also enabled me to conduct what I think is
08:34
the world's first human slime mold experiment.
08:38
This is part of an exhibition in Rotterdam last year.
08:40
We invited people to become
slime mold for half an hour.
08:43
So we essentially tied people together
08:48
so they were a giant cell,
08:51
and invited them to follow slime mold rules.
08:54
You have to communicate through oscillations,
08:57
no speaking.
09:00
You have to operate as one entity, one mass cell,
09:01
no egos,
09:06
and the motivation for moving
09:08
and then exploring the environment
09:10
is in search of food.
09:12
So a chaotic shuffle ensued
as this bunch of strangers
09:14
tied together with yellow ropes
wearing "Being Slime Mold" t-shirts
09:18
wandered through the museum park.
09:22
When they met trees, they had to reshape
09:25
their connections and reform as a mass cell
09:28
through not speaking.
09:31
This is a ludicrous experiment in many, many ways.
09:35
This isn't hypothesis-driven.
09:39
We're not trying to prove, demonstrate anything.
09:41
But what it did provide us was a way
09:43
of engaging a broad section of the public
09:45
with ideas of intelligence, agency, autonomy,
09:47
and provide a playful platform
09:52
for discussions about
09:54
the things that ensued.
09:58
One of the most exciting things
10:00
about this experiment
10:03
was the conversation that happened afterwards.
10:06
An entirely spontaneous symposium
happened in the park.
10:08
People talked about the human psychology,
10:12
of how difficult it was to let go
10:14
of their individual personalities and egos.
10:15
Other people talked about bacterial communication.
10:19
Each person brought in their own
10:22
individual interpretation,
10:24
and our conclusion from this experiment was that
10:27
the people of Rotterdam were highly cooperative,
10:28
especially when given beer.
10:32
We didn't just give them oats.
10:35
We gave them beer as well.
10:37
But they weren't as efficient as the slime mold,
10:39
and the slime mold, for me,
10:41
is a fascinating subject matter.
10:43
It's biologically fascinating,
10:45
it's computationally interesting,
10:47
but it's also a symbol,
10:49
a way of engaging with ideas of community,
10:51
collective behavior, cooperation.
10:54
A lot of my work draws on the scientific research,
10:58
so this pays homage to the maze experiment
11:00
but in a different way.
11:03
And the slime mold is also my working material.
11:05
It's a coproducer of photographs, prints, animations,
11:07
participatory events.
11:13
Whilst the slime mold doesn't choose
11:14
to work with me, exactly,
11:16
it is a collaboration of sorts.
11:18
I can predict certain behaviors
11:21
by understanding how it operates,
11:23
but I can't control it.
11:25
The slime mold has the final say
11:27
in the creative process.
11:28
And after all, it has its own internal aesthetics.
11:31
These branching patterns that we see
11:34
we see across all forms, scales of nature,
11:36
from river deltas to lightning strikes,
11:38
from our own blood vessels to neural networks.
11:41
There's clearly significant rules at play
11:45
in this simple yet complex organism,
11:48
and no matter what our disciplinary
perspective or our mode of inquiry,
11:50
there's a great deal that we can learn
11:54
from observing and engaging
11:56
with this beautiful, brainless blob.
11:57
I give you Physarum polycephalum.
12:00
Thank you.
12:04
(Applause)
12:05

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Heather Barnett - Artist
Heather Barnett creates art with slime mold -- a material used in diverse areas of scientific research, including biological computing, robotics and structural design.

Why you should listen
Heather Barnett creates fascinating biodesigns with the semi-intelligent slime mold. While it has no brain nor central nervous system, the single celled organism, Physarum polycephalum, shows a primitive form of memory, problem-solving skills and the apparent ability to make decisions. It is used as a model organism in diverse areas of scientific research, including biological computing, robotics and structural design. “It is also quite beautiful,” says Barnett, “and makes therefore for a great creative collaborator. Although ultimately I cannot control the final outcome, it is a rather independent organism.“
More profile about the speaker
Heather Barnett | Speaker | TED.com