Some of you may remember that the ship’s computer on Star Trek: Voyager contained bioneural gel packs. Researchers have taken us one step closer to a biocomputing future with a study on the potential of ecological systems for computing.
Neural networks are a big deal in the world of machine learning, and it turns out that ecological dynamics exhibit many of the same properties. Reservoir Computing (RC) is a special type of Recurrent Neural Network (RNN) that feeds inputs into a fixed-dynamics reservoir black box with training only occurring on the outputs, drastically reducing the computational requirements of the system. With some research now embodying these reservoirs into physical objects like robot arms, the researchers wanted to see if biological systems could be used as computing resources.
Using both simulated and real bacterial populations (Tetrahymena thermophila) to respond to temperature stimuli, the researchers showed that ecological system dynamics has the “necessary conditions for computing (e.g. synchronized dynamics in response to the same input sequences) and can make near-future predictions of empirical time series.” Performance is currently lower than other forms of RC, but the researchers believe this will open up an exciting new area of research.
Ecology is a strange discipline. At its most basic, it’s the study of how living things interact with their environment. It doesn’t so much seek to explain how life works, but rather how lives work together. A guiding principle of ecology is that life finds a way to exploit niches, subregions within the larger world with a particular mix of resources and challenges. It’s actually all quite fascinating.
But what does ecology have to do with Luka Mustafa’s talk at the 2018 Hackaday Belgrade Conference? Everything, as it turns out, and not just because Luka and his colleagues put IoT tools on animals and in their environments to measure and monitor them. It’s also that Luka has found a fascinating niche of his own to exploit, one on the edge of technology and ecology. As CEO of Institute IRNAS, a non-profit technology development group in Slovenia, Luka has leveraged his MEng degree, background in ham radio, and interest in LoRaWAN and other wide-area radio networks to explore ecological niches in ways that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, let alone in the days when animal tracking was limited by bulky radio collars.