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Is Slime Mold Smarter Than a Roomba?

The humble protozoan glop can do some amazing things

2 min read
Is Slime Mold Smarter Than a Roomba?
Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images

12UNewsSlimePetriSlime Remembered: Slime mold avoids its own tracks.Photo: Audrey Dussutour

There are a lot of similarities between the popular home robot and the forest-floor goop you wish you hadn’t stepped in. Following a combination of programmed cues, an iRobot Roomba responds to its environment, detecting dirt and vacuuming it up. Slime mold, or Physarum polycephalum, functions in a similar way, behaving in accordance with a list of genetically inherited rules. It’s a simple, single-celled organism that digests detritus and leaves behind a trail of slime wherever it goes. What makes slime mold remarkable is that when threatened, all the individual cells in the area combine, creating a larger organism—a collective entity capable of solving problems that a Roomba would find challenging.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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