Computational cordyceps. Fungus-powered logic functions. No, not a cynical Last of Us franchising spin off but the actual direction of research at the aptly titled Unconventional Computing Laboratory, part of the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. And only slightly less scary than a cordyceps fungus brain monster.
Popular Science (opens in new tab) (via Tom's Hardware (opens in new tab)) has a piece on the work being done by lab lead Professor Andrew Adamatzky and his colleagues. Author of such works as The Science of Slime Mould (opens in new tab), which argues that slime moulds perform complex computations that prove "the absence of a brain does not exclude an amorphous living creature from intelligence," Adamatzky and co. are reportedly working on actual computers composed, in part, of fungus.
"I mix mycelium cultures with hemp or with wood shavings, and then place it in closed plastic boxes and allow the mycelium to colonize the substrate, so everything then looks white," explains Andrew Adamatzky. "Then we insert electrodes and record the electrical activity of the mycelium. So, through the stimulation, it becomes electrical activity, and then we get the response."
In terms of turning that into a working computer, it goes something like this. In animal brains, neurons use electrical spikes to communicate signals, something that can be replicated when constructing artificial neural networks. Mycelium has a similar ability to create electrical spikes.
In simple terms, the presence or absence of a spike represents the ones and zeros of binary code. What's more, when mycelium are stimulated at two separate points, the conductivity increases, and they communicate faster and more reliably, effectively forming memory.
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Adamatzky says mycelium with different geometries can compute different functions, allowing something approaching an actual computer to be built.
"Right now it's just feasibility studies. 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," Adamatzky says. "In the future, we can grow more advanced mycelium computers and control devices."
Actually, Adamatzky goes further, even, than the idea of a fungal computer. "It's possible to implement neuromorphic circuits. We can say I'm planning to make a brain from mushrooms," he says.
So far, the lab has worked with oyster fungi, ghost fungi, bracket fungi, Enoki fungi, split gill fungi, and last but not least, yup you guessed it, caterpillar fungi, otherwise known as Cordyceps militari and of the same genus as the fungi from The Last of Us.
How much of this is truly plausible is beyond our pay grade. Certainly, some of the images in the article contributed by Adamatzky are whimsical to say the least. The motherboard sprinkled with mushroom shavings is silly enough to make the whole enterprise suspicious.
But on the basis of Adamatzky's extensive academic publications on the matter, we'll take it at face value for now. And we will, of course, welcome our new fungal overlords, as and when they arrive.