Vol 3 No 2 | Jul-Sep 2023

The Poet and the Prisoner

Story by Cordelia B. Francis | Art by Pia Alize Hazarika


About AI

AI (artificial intelligence) is the imitation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. Many of us are already familiar with ChatGPT. This is a large language model that has been fine-tuned using both supervised and reinforcement learning techniques.

AI models like this could be integrated with other technologies, such as robotics and virtual reality, to create more immersive and interactive experiences for humans. This could include things like virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa, personalised learning tools, or even virtual companions.

As AI becomes more sophisticated, concerns have arisen about issues like privacy, bias, and control. It is essential that society and governments develop strong ethical guidelinesfor the development and use of AI, to ensure that these technologies are used in ways that benefit humanity, and do not cause harm.



What is a memristor?

A memristor (a word that combines ‘memory’ and ‘resistor’) is an electronic component that can remember the amount of charge that has passed through it. Memristors have been proposed as a potential means of creating non-volatile memory (NVM) in computers. NVM in computers is a type of computer memory that can retain data even when the computer is turned off or loses power. This is different from volatile memory, such as random-access memory (RAM), which requires power to maintain stored data.

Memristors were first theorised by Leon Ong Chua in 1971. They comprise the fourth fundamental two-terminal circuit element following the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor. Currently IBM, Hewlett Packard, HRL, Samsung and other research labs are working on titanium dioxide and other memristors. Additionally, research is ongoing on NVM-related applications like neuromorphic technology, which tries to emulate the operations of the human brain using specialised hardware.



Biological systems as natural memristors

While there has been some research into the potential for biological systems to exhibit behaviour similar to that of electronic memristors, this work is still in its early stages. Electronic circuit technology based on bio-materials such as human tissue could be key to creating cyborg implants and human-machine interfaces. It may also have significant implications for medical, health, and sport applications.

Today, researchers are interested in the use of memristors in neuromorphic computing. Carver Mead, an American scientist, invented the term `neuromorphic’ to refer to analogue circuits that replicate the actions of organic neurons. There are several similarities between biological neural systems and electronic circuits.


Slime mould and what it can do

Slime mould exists everywhere in nature. In the old days, it was demonised as a witches potent, even called living creepies. Today scientists are fascinated by this simple organism which has not evolved much in the past two billion years, but it has learned a few things.


The queen of slime moulds is Gulielma Lister, a pioneering botanist who did extensive research on this fascinating organism. Today, slime mould is at the cutting edge of research into artificial intelligence.


Slime mould is a very basic organism, but it has the ability to create protoplasmic tubes which it employs to transport fluids. The ability of these tubes to carry electricity has fascinated researchers. They can operate at practical voltages and deliver sufficient current to illuminate an LED.

Using slime mould, living wiring can be created between ordinary electronic components. The biggest issue is that it continues to grow and occasionally forms new connections, but if you cut the main cable, it will self-heal. Interestingly, the protoplasmic tubes can even be grown on standard circuit boards.



Living poetry experiment

This story was inspired by `The Xenotext’ work of Christian Bök. The work claims to be the first foray in a growing new field of poetry known as `Living Poetry’. Bök has been working on this since 2011. `The Xenotext’ is made up of a single sonnet, `Orpheus’, which is translated into a gene and then integrated into a cell. The activated cell reads this poetry and in response, creates a protein whose amino acid sequence encodes a second sonnet, `Eurydice’. The cell becomes not only an archive for storing information, but also an operant machine for writing a poem. Bök has been working with bacterium cultures of E.coli.

Bök came across this idea of a microbial time capsule when he was a visiting artist at the MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology where he read the work of computer scientist Pak Chung Wong who along with his colleagues published an article in a science journal that examined the problem of data-preservation during apocalyptic events. In such a scenario, what would happen to our cultural and scientific legacies? they queried.

They proposed storing information in the genome of a bacterium. At this time, Bök read another article by astrophysicist Paul Davies. Davies had suggested that extraterrestrials might send humankind messages encoded in the genome of spores, viruses, and bacteria rather than via radio signals. The plausible premise inspired Bök to embed messages in living cells, stating that “Poetry should be at the ground floor of this activity.”