RSB Directors Seminar: Beyond the brain: decision making and information processing in ant colonies and slime mould amoebas

All living organisms need to process information; this basic ability allows them to find and exploit the resources necessary for life. But what happens when information processing  needs to be coordinated between many thousands – or even millions- of individuals?  Or when organisms lack brains entirely? In this talk, I will discuss decision-making and information processing in ant colonies and slime mould amoebas.  Despite being unicellular (and therefore brainless), the slime mould Physarum polycephalum can make trade-offs between risk and food quality, adjust its search strategy depending on environmental quality, balance its macronutrient intake, solve mazes, and even displays forms of memory. At the other end of the spectrum, ant colonies containing millions of ants can collectively solve shortest path problems, build efficient trail networks and reorganise their trail systems to minimise traffic delays.  The remarkable behaviours of ant colonies and slime mould amoebas raises questions about the nature and origin of cognition and about the mechanisms underlying information processing in radically different organisms.

All living organisms need to process information; this basic ability allows them to find and exploit the resources necessary for life. But what happens when information processing  needs to be coordinated between many thousands – or even millions- of individuals?  Or when organisms lack brains entirely? In this talk, I will discuss decision-making and information processing in ant colonies and slime mould amoebas.  Despite being unicellular (and therefore brainless), the slime mould Physarum polycephalum can make trade-offs between risk and food quality, adjust its search strategy depending on environmental quality, balance its macronutrient intake, solve mazes, and even displays forms of memory. At the other end of the spectrum, ant colonies containing millions of ants can collectively solve shortest path problems, build efficient trail networks and reorganise their trail systems to minimise traffic delays.  The remarkable behaviours of ant colonies and slime mould amoebas raises questions about the nature and origin of cognition and about the mechanisms underlying information processing in radically different organisms.