The Nasty Slime That Can Tell Time And Build Computers

By Morris M. on Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Slime_Mold_(Fuligo)
“You dirt-eating piece of slime, you scum-sucking pig, you son of a motherless goat!” —Lucky Day, Three Amigos (1986)

In A Nutshell

Slime molds are one of the weirdest creatures in existence—brainless, single-celled organisms that can break up into dozens of separate individuals and change shape at will. They’re also frighteningly intelligent.

The Whole Bushel

Slime molds look like what they sound like: a lump of slimy, sticky stuff that you’d probably wipe off the bottom of your shoe. In the wild, they seem to change shape between a kind of fungus, a kind of slug, and a kind of plant (and much else) without ever actually being any of them. In short, they’re strange, strange creatures. They’re also literally brainless, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from recognizing them as almost supernaturally intelligent.

In 2000, Japanese researchers discovered that slime molds are really, really good at navigating mazes. Not in a trial-and-error sort of a way, either: If given a maze with two sources of food at opposing ends, a slime mold will instinctively grow along the shortest possible path between the two. Again, these are creatures totally lacking in anything even approaching a brain, yet they can understand not only mazes, but also time.

Yes: time. Researchers demonstrated this by putting slime molds in an ideal environment, then lowering the temperature every 30 minutes to make it inhospitable for them. After a few rounds, the slime molds learned to automatically slow their metabolism every 30 minutes on the dot, suggesting these lumps of goo have better time perception than most potheads.

But we haven’t even gotten to the weirdest bit. Thanks to their ability to find the shortest possible path between two objects, slime molds are also great at planning road and railway networks. Actual, real-life road builders have used slime molds to decide the best route to build their new highway—and that’s before we get to the guys who use them to build computers.

Basically, the idea is that slime molds can act like a type of resistor called a “memristor,” meaning they could potentially be used to build general-purpose computers. It sounds nuts—and it’s about to get a whole lot crazier. Just two months ago, scientists actually hooked a slime mold up to a robot face, so we could “see” its emotions. If there was ever one experiment that could have doomed humanity, giving the super-intelligent slime a robot slave was probably it.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence (video)
Wired: Spore-Spitting Slime Molds Make Great Computer Hardware
NewScientist: Robot face lets slime mould show its emotional side