Adapt by Amina Khan

Adapt by Amina Khan

Author:Amina Khan
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

6

HIVE MIND

How Ants’ Collective Intelligence Might Change the Networks We Build

Few creatures you might find on land look as humble as the slime mold Physarum polycephalum. The bright yellow mass lives in moist damp areas, such as the soil in your well-fertilized garden or under a rotting log in the woods. The slime mold is not technically a mold—it’s neither plant, animal, nor fungi—and so is often lumped in with the protists, an unofficial and unrelated grab bag of critters that are single-celled, either on their own or in colonies that blur the distinction between what makes a cell an organism and what makes it a mere unit in a larger living body.

While the slime mold does not live up to the second half of its name, it certainly fits the first. With a sickly wet shine, it looks like radioactive snot shot from the nose of a giant. It can take many forms: translucent and membranous, or balled up like a gelatinous missile. It has no arms, no legs, no nose, no eyes, no brain—no apparent appendages and abilities of any sort. And yet, with enough food to fuel its growth, it can double its surface area in a day. If it can’t seem to find anything to nosh on, the amoeba can extend footlike tendrils of its body, called pseudopods, and start crawling to a more suitable location.

Its strange talents go well beyond these physical abilities. In 2010, Japanese scientists placed some slime mold in the center of a surface laid out like a map of Tokyo. At each of the surrounding cities, they placed a meal of oats, a favorite for the slime mold, which in the wild dines on bacteria and fungi found in forest debris. Slowly, inexorably, the slime mold expanded its reach, growing until it made contact with the oat oases and then self-pruning until only the connections to each food source remained. The result, in the end, looked very much like a map of the Tokyo rail system.

Let me put into perspective how incredible the slime mold’s achievement really is. For one thing, a transportation network has to juggle a few different goals: It has to allow people to reach their destination as quickly as possible, which means not having to take five stops just to get to a city that’s next door. But it also has to do so without building too much infrastructure, because government funding isn’t unlimited. Finally, it has to be fault-tolerant—with enough built-in redundancy to withstand breakdowns in the network and reroute traffic around blockages.

It takes whole teams of experts with advanced degrees to build a system like this. It takes years of careful planning and oversight. And yet the slime mold manages it without a single neuron in its amorphous body, perfectly optimizing the network it makes between oat-filled hubs to minimize the resources used, maximize the oats it reaches, and to be resilient enough to withstand the occasional breakage in the network.

The slime mold’s abilities don’t stop there.



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