The Artist Who’s Making Cybernetic Slime Mold Sing

Slime mold is fascinating. I like it for the same reason I like ant colonies—it’s made up of very simple (single-celled) creatures that collaborate when food is scarce to form a kind of collective intelligence greater than the sum of its parts.

But I’ve never considered what happens when you hook the stuff up to sensors and algorithms and translate its electrical impulses into light and sound. As it turns out, Spanish artist, Oscar Martin, is way ahead of me (and likely you) on that count.

The result is mesmerizing—like a campy sci-fi soundtrack about robots or an alien invasion. Martin describes it as a distinctly “non-human aesthetic taste.” (Agreed.)

When it comes to the communication of information, we humans tend to think in terms of our default senses. We see the world in light and color. We hear sounds. But increasingly, technology enables us to cross-pollinate these sensory inputs.

Radio, which converts your favorite song into electromagnetic waves (that you can’t hear) and back again, is probably the most familiar example. Or consider color blind artist, Neil Harbisson, who wears a device that transforms color into sound—thus allowing Harbisson to hear color. (And, in fact, he can hear nonvisible light too.)

Similarly, Martin’s project converts the natural electrical signals produced by slime mold into light and sound. But he then takes it one step further by creating a feedback loop. The system gathers the signal, feeds it to an evolutionary algorithm, converts the result into light and sound, then plays it back to the slime mold.

Slime mold responds to external stimuli, so, upon hearing and seeing its own electrical signal, it reacts—creating a new and different electrical pattern. And so the process continues and the sound evolves into a cybernetic slime mold composition.

My first instinct was to call Martin’s project a first—but Google rapidly disabused me of the notion. Slime mold music is old hat. Some researchers are even building a slime mold biocomputer whose electrical impulses are translated into notes on a piano.

Residing at the weird intersection of technology and creativity, slime mold music joins the likes of Squarepusher’s robot band or this robotic painter. And of course, presumably as intended, it raises the increasingly relevant question: What new and unexpected things become possible when technology and biology collide?

Image Credit: Oscar Martin/Vimeo

Jason Dorrier
Jason Dorrier
Jason is editorial director of Singularity Hub. He researched and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science and technology. He's curious about pretty much everything, but especially loves learning about and sharing big ideas and advances in artificial intelligence, computing, robotics, biotech, neuroscience, and space.
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