TEDSalon Berlin 2014

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

Filmed:

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.
00:21
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,
00:39
all sharing a cell wall,
00:42
all operating as one entity.
00:43
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
01:06
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.
01:16
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.
01:39
I observed as it networked.
01:42
It formed a connection between food sources.
01:44
I watched it leave a trail behind it,
01:46
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,
02:00
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,
02:52
all citing incredible work with this one organism,
02:54
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.
03:14
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.
03:26
The conclusion from their experiment
03:28
was that the slime mold had
a primitive form of intelligence.
03:29
Another study exposed cold air at
regular intervals to the slime mold.
03:32
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
03:51
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.
03:58
The conclusion from their experiment
04:00
was that the slime mold was able to learn.
04:02
A third experiment:
04:05
the slime mold was invited
04:07
to explore a territory covered in oats.
04:08
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
04:30
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
04:41
— (Laughter) —
04:44
a complex system developed over time
04:45
by community dwellings, civil
engineering, urban planning.
04:48
What had taken us well over 100 years
04:52
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
04:59
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.
05:09
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,
05:26
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
05:34
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,
05:55
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,
06:16
but without any large-scale control center.
06:19
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
06:36
for slime mold researchers and enthusiasts
06:40
to share knowledge and experimentation
06:42
across disciplinary divides
06:44
and across academic divides.
06:47
The Slime Mould Collective
membership is self-selecting.
06:51
People have found the collective
06:55
as the slime mold finds the oats.
06:57
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,
07:57
and they design their own petri dish experiment,
07:59
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
08:08
on the Slime Mould Collective.
08:11
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.
08:37
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,
08:56
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.
09:38
We're not trying to prove, demonstrate anything.
09:40
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
10:02
was the conversation that happened afterwards.
10:05
An entirely spontaneous symposium
happened in the park.
10:08
People talked about the human psychology,
10:11
of how difficult it was to let go
10:13
of their individual personalities and egos.
10:15
Other people talked about bacterial communication.
10:18
Each person brought in their own
10:22
individual interpretation,
10:24
and our conclusion from this experiment was that
10:26
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,
10:48
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.
11:12
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.
11:30
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
11:55
with this beautiful, brainless blob.
11:57
I give you Physarum polycephalum.
12:00
Thank you.
12:03
(Applause)
12:05

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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.“