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Complex systems and technology

Physarum polycephalum
Image via Wikipedia

Two months ago I was speaking over at TEDxWulkan – it was a TEDx-like event inspired by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and its theme was inspired by a well known (at least for fans of Sean Connery) movie line “It’s impossible. But doable.” The video of my short talk is now posted on YouTube.

My point was that inspiration for modern technology could come not only from certain solutions found in living systems but also (or mainly) the design of nature’s ways of coping with changes.  I’ve used slime molds (fungus-like organisms, that do not belong to the Fungi kingdom) as an example of complex adaptive system that exhibit quite sophisticated behaviour, but can hardly be called “intelligent” by design. I’ve shown a research done over at International Centre for Unconventional Computing (must love the name) by Jeff Jones and Andrew Adamatzky. They have used Physarum polycephalum to reproduce motorways between major cities in England (see original paper: Road planning with slime mould: If Physarum built motorways it would route M6/M74 through Newcastle and supplementary material for some cool videos). Similar work has been published in Science few months ago, where a group of researchers modelled Tokyo railway network. I’ve argued that we should design our technology in similar way so it can adapt to changing circumstances on its own.

Of course it’s easy for me to theoretize like that – I’m a biologist, rather computational one and I don’t put my ideas into laboratory practice. There are some niches where adaptive systems are build for quite some time (for example large wireless networks) but these are rather exceptions. Adaptive software is still rare but seems to cover a wide area of uses (see this fascinating paper on adaptive software by Peter Norvig and David Cohn). Obviously it’s doable, but really hard. At least the field is gaining recognition. Consider that only two years ago the same group that had published this paper in Science on slime mold reproducing Tokyo railway network, was awarded Ig Nobel Prize for research on solving maze puzzles with the same organism (published in Nature).