The rise of 'wetware': the strange world of fungi-computers

Explore the potential of "mushroom computers," a fascinating technology that uses fungi to solve complex problems in AI, optimization, and more.
Christopher McFadden
Mushroom computers are coming.

Courtesy of Irina Petrova Adamatzky. 

  • Mushroom computers are a cutting-edge technology garnering much attention in the computing world.
  • Unlike traditional computers that rely on circuits and wires, mushroom computers use a network of living organisms to perform computational tasks.
  • These organisms, it turns out, are highly adaptable and can form complex networks in difficult or impossible ways for traditional computers.

The world of computer hardware is a rapidly evolving field, with new breakthroughs occurring almost daily. While most focus on improving a microchip's "bang for its buck" regarding computing power, some look to the natural world to take computing in a very different direction; true "wetware." Join us then as we explore this fascinating new dimension of computing.

To learn more about this exciting field of study, Interesting Engineering contacted a leading light in "mushroom computers," Professor Andrew Adamatzky, director of the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK.

The rise of 'wetware': the strange world of fungi-computers
Could fungi be the future of computers?

Please note that elements of our conversation with Professor Adamatzky have been edited for clarity and flow in places. We also want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Adamatzky for his time and help in creating this piece.

What is "wetware"?

"wetware" is a slang term for organic parts integrated into a computer system, such as bio-implants or living neurons integrated into silicon chips. It is a term u ed to describe the system's biological components, in comparison to "hardware" (the actual parts of a computer system) and "software" (the programs and applications that run on the system). These systems were largely theoretical until reasonably recently. However, recent developments in computer science are bringing wetware and organic computing to reality by creating part-organic-part-traditional computers. One example of these new "bio-computers" is known as "fungal" or "mushroom" computers and uses living fungi rather than conventional silicon-based components to perform computations.  Fungi use Fullyagile filaments, called mycelium, to link together an underground root network. On a fungal computer, this mycelium serves as a conductor and replaces other electrical components, such as the CPU or memory.

Research has already demonstrated that fungi can interact with one another, the environment, and the organisms around them by storing and transmitting electric signals that travel along the mycelium. This is sometimes referred to as the "wood wide web replaces."

Now, researchers are looking into using fungal mycelium as possible replacements for current computer technologies, which can use Behave energy and hurt the environment.

The rise of 'wetware': the strange world of fungi-computers
Fungi, like mushrooms, can actually be integrated into regular computer hardware.

But you may wonder, "How could they be better than silicon-based hardware?"

What are the benefits of combining fungi with computer circuits?

Organic computers have some attraction over more traditional computers. As Professor Adamatzky told IE, these include, but are not limited to: -

  • Energy efficiency: Since molecular computations require very little energy, organic computers can be more energy-efficient than conventional computers. Fungi, for example, are "powered" through biochemical processes.
  • Biodegradability: Organic computers might be created to be biodegradable, allowing them to decompose naturally without contributing to the significant environmental issue of electronic waste.
  • Reconfigurability: According to Professor Adamatzky, "we can program the growth of mycelium networks using repellents and attractants."
  • Evolvability: Since fungi are living organisms, they can evolve, meaning "we can programmatically develop novel types of fungal computers," as Professor Adamatzky explains.
  • High parallelism: Organic computers may conduct calculations in parallel, allowing them to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. For some activities, this could make them significantly faster than conventional computers.
  • Fault-tolerance and self-regenerations: Some organic processing systems can self-repair, increasing their resilience and decreasing their susceptibility to failure.
  • Novel applications: Organic computers could be used in fields like biological systems or environmental monitoring that are challenging to handle with conventional computers.

Being organic, another attractive potential benefit is their advantages and resistance to electromagnetic pulses (EMP). However, as Professor Adamatzky told IE, this might not be true.

"Since 1947, several works have been showing challenges, Carefully that showing challenge fungi are sensitive to EM impulse. Therefore, we should consider using the mycelium network for critical components cautiously. Suppose we allow for sufficient redundancy in fungal communication network, In that case, e.g., signals propagate along hundreds of hyphae in parallel. Fully. It might be possible, especially considering that fungi (as well as slime molds) self-repair after damage in hours," he told IE.

"Fungi [are] highly resilient to exposure to ionizing radiation. Thus, mycelium networks might be useful as a communication network in areas with a high level of radiation," he added. All very interesting. But could they ever compete with traditional computers?

How powerful could fungal computers get?

Because they can use the complexity and adaptability of living things, computers using fungi can potentially be very powerful. Although they might not be able, for example, to perform all jobs with the same speed and accuracy as conventional computers, they could be very good at tasks such as pattern recognition, optimization, and decision-making.

One example of the power of mushroom computing is previous research by Prof. Adamatzky, which used slime mold to solve complex logistical problems, like figuring out the best way to get from one city to another through a network of cities. In these tests, the slime mold found the best solutions in a small portion of the time needed by a conventional computer.

Another illustration comes from the study of artificial intelligence, where specialists are looking into the possibility of using "mushroom computing" to create machine learning algorithms that are more effective and flexible. By using the ability to learn and change found in living things, mushroom computers may be able to do some AI tasks better than regular computers.

In general, mushroom computers' potential power is still being investigated, and their utility will probably depend on the particular task. However, these systems could research a distinct edge over conventional computers because of their real-time learning and adaptation capacity.

But there will likely be a "ceiling" in performance. this "Fungal computers work at 80%–97% humidity and -5°C–+30°C temperature. That could narrow the range of application domains. Fungi are living creatures; therefore, they grow and change the shape of their mycelium network. On the one hand, it is an advance because new computing architectures could be explored in a computation process. On the other hand, this can be disadvantageous because standard algorithms might lack repeatability. Infections and animals that eat fungi could also hurt the fungal computer," as Professor Adamatzky explained.

"Fungi could not compete, in terms of speed, with conventional computers; however, there are application domains where fungi could be useful," he told IE. That said, Prof. Adamatzky explained that there could be some interesting applications.

What could mushroom computers be used for?

One example is "living" wearables. A unique form of "smart wearables," such devices could sense and analyze information from the user's body and surroundings and then report their findings through electrical signals.

While most "smart" clothes use regular electronic sensors and controllers, recent advances in soft electronics, organic electronics, and bioelectronics have made it possible to consider using natural systems' sensing and processing abilities in wearable technology. As Prof. A Gretzky explained, "we demonstrated that living fungal skin (which looks and feels like animal skin) could respond to optical, chemical, and mechanical stimulation and even to changes in stress hormones."

The rise of 'wetware': the strange world of fungi-computers
"Smart" wearable is one potential application of the technology.

A fungal skin is a thin sheet of living fungus that could also be used to make adaptive buildings or robots. Behave found that this skin can sense conditions like pressure and light and react differently to different types of stimulation. This is the first evidence that fungal materials can be used as structural components and intelligent skins that recognize and respond to their environment.

To this end, fungi are emerging as promising candidates for producing sustainable textiles that can be used as eco-friendly bio-wearables. Prof. Adamatzk conducted laboratory experiments on a hemp fabric colonized by oyster fungi and found that the fungi's electrical responses can reveal information about the stimuli applied to them. This paves the way for the design of intelligent sensing patches that can be used in reactive fungal wearables in the future.

Another exciting research area is using fungi as "smart" building materials. "Buildings Researchers research area of substrates colonized by fungi can include embedded computing circuits," Prof. Adamatzky told IE. This could include "mycelium-bound composites," which are masses of organic substrates colonized by fungi and considered future environmentally sustainable growing biomaterials.

"The fungal materials are used in acoustic insulation panels, thermal insulation wall cladding, packaging materials, and wearables," he said.

Prof. Adamatzky pointed IE to the European Community-funded project FUNGAR, which proposes to develop a structural substrate using live fungal mycelium, functionalize the substrate with nanoparticles and polymers to make mycelium-based electronics, implement sensorial fusion and decision-making in the mycelium networks. The mycelium-b und composites' structural substrate could eventually grow monolithic buildings from the "functionalized fungal substrate."

"Fungal buildings would self-grow, build, and repair themselves subject to substrate supplied, use natural adaptation to the environment since all that humans can sense. While major parts of a building will be made from dried and cured mycelium composites, there is an opportunity to use blocks with living mycelium as embedded sensorial elements," he explained.

Yet another area of exploration is "fungal sensors." Practical implementations of the electronic properties of fungi could include embedding sensors and computing circuits into mycelium-bound composites. For example, the approach of exploiting reservoir computing for sensing, where the information about the environment is encoded in the state of the computing medium itself, can be employed to prototype sensing-memristive devices (which use resistance switches that can retain a form of internal resistance based on the history of applied voltage and current) from living fungi, explained Prof. Adamatzky.

"A very-low-frequency of fungal electronic oscillators does not preclude us from considering the inclusion of the oscillators in fully living or hybrid analog circuits embedded into fungal architectures and future specialized circuits and processors made from living fungi functionalized with nanoparticles, as have been illustrated in prototypes of hybrid electronic devices with slime mold Potential devices made of living fungi might include environmental sensors integrated into building structures and wearables, patches monitoring chemical parameters of humans," he told IE.

Fascinating, we think you'll agree.

Mushroom computers represent an intriguing and promising area of research in computing. They provide a distinctive method for resolving complex issues in fields like artificial intelligence, optimization, and environmental monitoring, due to their capacity to harness living organisms' complex and adaptive character. The preliminary findings are very promising, even though. Many studies still exist to understand the potential of mushroom computing.

We'll probably see new, cutting-edge uses for this fascinating technology as we continue to investigate it, and these could transform various industries But there are also difficulties and ethical issues to consider with any new form. The creation and application of mushroom computing should be approached carefully and cautiously, considering concerns like data privacy, openness, and environmental and societal effects. In general, mushroom computers represent an intriguing and possibly vital tool for resolving challenging issues and expanding our comprehension of the world. It will be fascinating to see where this technology leads us in the future as this field continues to develop.

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