We’ve Hired an Efficiency Expert — Meet Physarum Polycephalum

Note: This post originally ran in 2010 on True/Slant. Not knowing when they might delete their archive, I’m moving some here.

Researchers have turned to a slime mold for tips on work efficiency. While that’s just another day at the office for me, the researchers seem impressed.

They say Physarum polycephalum built a replica of the Tokyo train system in 26 hours that’s just about as efficient, reliable and “expensive” to run as the real thing. It could be the ultimate outsourcing strategy, but Japanese and British scientists see another opportunity.

First, some background.

The journal Science reports that the scientists created a map of the Tokyo metro area using oat flakes for the major cities. Then they put a gelatinous blob (technically, a plasmodium) of Physarum on “Tokyo,” and sat back to see what would happen.

Within about 12 hours, the mold had covered the area with a thin and wet veined sheath of itself. By the 26th hour, the sheath was gone, replaced by mushy tunnels connecting the flakes. The tunnels mimicked Tokyo’s transit system.

This either means that slime mold is pretty damn smart or Japanese engineers are pretty damn dumb.

Either way, the scientists think they can take what they’ve learned about self-organization from the slime mold and apply it to the construction of communication networks and other similar systems.

Could engineers one day be taking orders from the lunches in the breakroom fridge? Stranger things have happened.

It’s more likely that the rules that Physarum follows to find and colonize food sources will be written into software that builds, maintains and expands networks on the fly. Engineers wouldn’t be directed by slime mold.

They’d be designing cushier fridges for them.

The full story is in the Jan. 22 issue of Science, but treat yourself by reading author Philip K. Dick predicted this in 1964.

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