A piano duet does not necessarily require the cooperation of two humans. Sometimes beautiful music is the result of a less conventional partnership—like, say, between a human and a computer programmed with slime mold.
During a recent concert, Eduardo Miranda performed a moody composition with an interactive biocomputer he and his students programmed with the fungus Physarum polycephalum. As Miranda, a professor at Plymouth University’s Centre for Computer Music Research, strikes a piano’s keys, you hear the biocomputer respond with an ethereal twinkling. It’s a strange, alien effect, not unlike hearing a slightly distorted echo of your voice after shouting into a canyon.
The duet is the result of more than a year’s research into how we might program computers not with silicon but with living matter. It turns out that slime mold, a little understood organism, makes for an adept, ever-evolving electrical component. Miranda and his team (including Ph.D. student Ed Braund, who is leading the research) discovered that slime mold, when grown on a circuit board, can store information about electrical charges, sort of like a memory chip.
When Miranda tickles the keys, information about the notes is sent via a microphone to a computer, which translates the sounds into electrical signals that are sent to the biocomputer. The slime mold processes these electrical signals and sends that information back to the conventional computer, which then creates voltages. These voltages cause electromagnets, hovering above the piano strings, to vibrate the strings, causing the wobbly notes you hear.
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