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  • 00:01
    - We know you don't need one big brain to act smart.
  • 00:05
    Take ants, for example.
  • 00:06
    They build intricate colonies&59; they farm&59; they wage war.
  • 00:11
    Each ant has a tiny little brain.
  • 00:13
    But together, they exhibit swarm intelligence.
  • 00:17
    That means the group is smart in ways that individual members are not.
  • 00:21
    You can see swarm intelligence at play in other tiny-brained creatures, especially other insects, like bees.
  • 00:28
    But swarm intelligence also appears in a much stranger place, within a single creature without any brain at all.
  • 00:36
    It's a little blob that's teaching us a lot about what it means to be smart.
  • 00:43
    We took a trip to the swarm lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to check it out.
  • 00:49
    (gentle music) - Studying slime mold is, it's probably one of the weirdest organisms I've worked with.
  • 00:59
    My name is Simon Garnier.
  • 01:01
    I'm an assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
  • 01:04
    - [Alessandra] Simon runs the swarm lab, which studies intelligence in places you might not expect to find it.
  • 01:10
    - The main research topic of the lab is trying to understand how what we call decentralized systems, so system that don't have a boss or an architect or someone in charge, how these systems are capable of self organizing and through this self-organization, find solutions to problems.
  • 01:28
    - [Alessandra] And Simon has an unlikely test subject for his studies.
  • 01:32
    - Slime mold is a unicelled organism, so it's a single cell, but it's a very particular cell, if you compare it to what people think cells are.
  • 01:40
    Instead of having one nucleus, it has actually millions of them, sometimes billions of them.
  • 01:45
    It's a cell that can grow over like very large sizes.
  • 01:48
    I mean, one of the rare cells in the world that you can actually see with your own eyes.
  • 01:52
    - But as unique as slime mold is to study, it also takes a lot of patience.
  • 01:57
    - It doesn't move very fast, just a millimeter an hour.
  • 02:00
    For someone studying animal behavior, it's one of the most frustrating things that you can't see the behavior directly.
  • 02:05
    You have to wait.
  • 02:07
    Other than that, it's cheap.
  • 02:08
    It doesn't taste very good.
  • 02:10
    I wouldn't recommend people to eat that.
  • 02:13
    - [Alessandra] You tried it?
  • 02:14
    - I tried it.
  • 02:15
    - [Alessandra] What does it taste like?
  • 02:16
    - It's more like, have you ever, like, licked the floor?
  • 02:19
    Like, it tastes like dirt.
  • 02:21
    - But slime mold isn't just weird because of its size or its taste.
  • 02:25
    It also appears to be intelligent.
  • 02:28
    It doesn't have a brain or a nervous system, but it can solve all kinds of complex problems without any of that hardware.
  • 02:35
    As slime mold grows, it can keep track of where it's been.
  • 02:39
    It can solve mazes in search of food.
  • 02:42
    It can even be trained to take risks in the name of a big payoff.
  • 02:45
    And then, there are the transit experiments.
  • 02:49
    About a decade ago, scientists at the Hokkaido University in Sapporo had a weird idea.
  • 02:55
    - What the researchers did, essentially, is they gave slime mold a map of the Tokyo rail system, and each of the station was actually a food source for slime mold, and then they let slime mold explore that area, and as I said, when slime mold find resources in the environment, it's gonna start building a network between these different resources.
  • 03:16
    - [Alessandra] What the researchers found a few days later was a pretty well-designed rail system that closely mimicked the real-life map.
  • 03:24
    - What they found is that the slime molds actually build networks that are pretty close to optimal.
  • 03:28
    They are very cheap to build, but at the same time, if there is a disruption in the network, they will be able to get around it.
  • 03:36
    - [Alessandra] That bit about being responsive to disruption is something that our transit networks could learn a lot from.
  • 03:42
    - That's a problem we need, like, supercomputer to solve, and then this organism is just essentially a bunch of proteins and lipids and this thing is just capable of solving it naturally, without any external help.
  • 03:59
    - Simon's team helped us to recreate another famous transit experiment that uses a map of the United States.
  • 04:05
    By placing food sources on major US cities, we essentially asked the slime mold to build us an interstate highway system, which begs the same question that so much of this asks.
  • 04:16
    How is slime mold doing this?
  • 04:18
    Simon's not entirely sure.
  • 04:21
    But he has an idea.
  • 04:22
    - Here in the lab, one of the hypotheses we are exploring is that the brain of the slime mold, if you want, is actually the membrane of the slime mold, 'cause the membrane is the part of the slime mold that is both in contact with the environment, with getting the outside information, and in contact with the physiology of the organism, so getting the inside information.
  • 04:40
    - Meaning even without a brain, a single bead of slime mold can react to its surroundings and disseminate the information throughout the cell.
  • 04:48
    Simon thinks this decision-making power may come from that ability to synchronize information throughout its system.
  • 04:54
    We left our Petri dishes at Simon's lab for three days to let it grow.
  • 05:00
    And since he mentioned it, we had to try the stuff.
  • 05:02
    - Cheers.
  • 05:03
    - (mumbles) Cheers.
  • 05:06
    It tastes like dust.
  • 05:08
    - Mm, yeah, it's like moss.
  • 05:09
    - Yeah.
  • 05:10
    - It tastes like moss.
  • 05:11
    Yeah, it reminds me of when we used to put moss in our nativity for Christmas.
  • 05:16
    - Oh, and you were eating it?
  • 05:18
    - No, I'm tasting it instead of smelling it.
  • 05:20
    (laughing) Before we left, we also asked the big question.
  • 05:25
    What exactly can we learn from all of this?
  • 05:28
    Well, first, studying slime mold is like studying the very, very distant past.
  • 05:33
    - Life was unicellular at the beginning, and that's a unicellular organism.
  • 05:36
    And so, by looking at how something like this is capable of solving complex problem, we sort of get to the origin of intelligence on Earth.
  • 05:45
    - And second, he thinks that those transit experiments aren't just good metaphors.
  • 05:50
    - In the future, like self-driving cars is going to be a big decentralized system.
  • 05:54
    We're going to have millions of these self-driving cars on the road, and essentially they are all computers on wheels, and each of these computer on wheels is going to try to make decision in real time on which road to take, how to avoid this other car, how to find the best path.
  • 06:12
    - Basically, if we can tease out the algorithm that slime mold uses to make decisions, we could use some of that math for ourselves.
  • 06:20
    - If self-driving cars are capable of talking to each other, figuring out where traffic is clogged, they can automatically redistribute themselves in the network and decrease, essentially, the amount of pressure on particular road, making it better for everyone.
  • 06:32
    - [Alessandra] A few days later, Simon sent us the results of the experiment.
  • 06:37
    The map isn't perfect, but it is comparable to a highway network that took millions of dollars and years to create.
  • 06:44
    So yes, this is just a bunch of goo in a Petri dish, but it's goo that can make you question your own complexity as a human.
  • 06:52
    - So the question is, if slime mold is not, say, intelligence, and it's using only like basic physics and chemistry to solve this problem, well then, if we are as good as a sack of puddings, like are we intelligence really, or do we need to sort of really find what intelligence means when we look at something like slime mold?
  • 07:15
    - Hey everyone!
  • 07:16
    You're watching this on the brand new Verge Science YouTube channel.
  • 07:20
    The whole science team has been working on this, and we're really excited.
  • 07:23
    We're putting out a video every week, so please subscribe to this channel and check back next week for more.
  • 07:28

What self-driving cars can learn from brainless slime mold

Slime mold is a single-celled bit of goo that you’d find under a log in the woods. It’s also a master decision-maker, capable of weighing risk and reward in ways that make scientists question what intelligence really is. We grew slime mold of our own, and watched it tackle some amazingly complicated problems that could even help create better algorithms for self-driving cars.

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