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Robotic Mold 118

Canis Lupus writes to mention that researchers from the University of West England are designing the world's first biological robot, constructed from mold. The robot, "Plasmobot," will be created using vegetative slime mold called plasmodium (Physarum polycephalum) that is commonly found in forests, gardens, and most damp places in the UK. "This new plasmodium robot, called plasmobot, will sense objects, span them in the shortest and best way possible, and transport tiny objects along pre-programmed directions. The robots will have parallel inputs and outputs, a network of sensors and the number crunching power of super computers. The plasmobot will be controlled by spatial gradients of light, electro-magnetic fields and the characteristics of the substrate on which it is placed. It will be a fully controllable and programmable amorphous intelligent robot with an embedded massively parallel computer."
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Robotic Mold

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  • And? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kell Bengal ( 711123 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:36PM (#29264283)
    And what exactly do they intend to use it for? Does this have any practical applications where it would be superior to an inorganic robot that isn't at risk of being eaten by the first moderately complex organism that thinks mold looks tasty?
  • Not Really a Robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Garrett Fox ( 970174 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:37PM (#29264297) Homepage
    The article explains what's meant by saying that the "robot" will compute: "Most people's idea of a computer is a piece of hardware with software designed to carry out specific tasks. This mould, or plasmodium, is a naturally occurring substance with its own embedded intelligence. It propagates and searches for sources of nutrients and when it finds such sources it branches out in a series of veins of protoplasm. The plasmodium is capable of solving complex computational tasks, such as the shortest path between points and other logical calculations. Through previous experiments we have already demonstrated the ability of this mould to transport objects. By feeding it oat flakes, it grows tubes which oscillate and make it move in a certain direction carrying objects with it. We can also use light or chemical stimuli to make it grow in a certain direction."

    That's like saying that the bamboo plant on my desk is a robot. It, too, transports substances in a direction determined by light input, and computes the optimal direction for approaching a light source. I could even claim that I'm adding "logic gates" to it by covering or pruning certain leaves.

    Says the article, the mold robot has "the number crunching power of super computers" because it carries out computing tasks. That claim is also pretty silly. The A* algorithm can find the shortest distance between paths, and it doesn't require anything that could be called a supercomputer today.

    So, this thing is a "robot" in the sense that pointing at random objects and calling yourself a master of "found art" is art.
  • by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:50PM (#29264489) Journal

    From an unlikely source: PubMed []

    Search terms "plasmodium Physarum polycephalum"

    I went looking for negative stuff, knowing plasmodiums were behind malaria. Couldn't find any for this stuff, but I did find some juicy bits from biomedical science regarding its computational ability, or rather its internal processes that can be used as such. Not many will be able to get the referenced material, but just the abstracts are tasty.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) * on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:53PM (#29264543) Journal

    I'm just glad this goo is orange and not grey [].

  • Re:overhyped (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:57PM (#29264591) Homepage Journal

    Why is it lately that every time there's any slashdot story about any research whatever, somebody has to pipe in that it's "just another article about someone getting research money"?

    What's the matter, can't get your project funded?

  • by Archaemic ( 1546639 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @02:57PM (#29264593)

    The plasmodium behind malaria is not the same kind of plasmodium. IIRC, malaria is caused by a sporozoan, which is completely different from a slime mould. In fact, plasmodium is not even a kind of slime mould. In reference to slime moulds, plasmodium is just the macroscopic form of any slime mould.

  • Re:And? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @03:34PM (#29265183) Journal
    And what exactly do they intend to use it for?

    Nice and simple answer to that FTA: "Researchers have received a Leverhulme Trust grant worth £228,000 to develop the amorphous non-silicon biological robot".

    At the risk of getting modded "redundant", this really doesn't sound like much of a "discovery", much less a "robot". At best, IF they came up with a novel way to arrange food around it to solve NP-complete problems, you could call it a type of massively parallel processor. Possibly, with a real stretch of the imagination and some polymer science voodoo, a self-arranging scaffold for 3d modelling. But a robot? Just because it moves doesn't make it a Porche.
  • Re:Umm... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pthisis ( 27352 ) on Monday August 31, 2009 @04:56PM (#29266341) Homepage Journal

    No, this sounds like it's a normal mold.

    Nope, normal molds are fungi. Slime molds aren't molds at all. They used to be considered in the now-defunct Protist kingdom, but that's not a monophyletic grouping, so it's been split up into several different kingdoms (although the exact classification is still the subject of some debate).

    The most popular current taxonomy puts slime molds into several kingdoms, with plasmodial slime molds (the case at hand) in the kingdom Amoebozoa alongside amoebas (among others) and decidedly not in the kingdoms of plants, animals, or fungi.

  • by bmacs27 ( 1314285 ) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @12:51AM (#29270191)
    Actually that isn't entirely true.

    Nakagaki et. al. []

    While I agree that it follows concentration gradients... one could say the same thing about your own nervous system. Then we get back to "what exactly do we mean by intelligence?"

    From the abstract:

    "The plasmodium of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum is a large amoeba-like cell consisting of a dendritic network of tube-like structures (pseudopodia). It changes its shape as it crawls over a plain agar gel and, if food is placed at two different points, it will put out pseudopodia that connect the two food sources. Here we show that this simple organism has the ability to find the minimum-length solution between two points in a labyrinth."

    Basically these tube like protrusions die off if they are taking a sub-optimal route between sources of resources. Further, they will flex in such a way that they distribute the resources from particular sites in proportion to their delivery frequency. Interestingly they've been modeled quite elegantly with simple resonator circuits taking advantage of hysteresis properties of those memristors [] we keep hearing about.

    The computational power of single cells shouldn't be scoffed at. The diversity of behavior you can see emerging from environmental interactions with genetic expression is pretty astonishing.

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