Could Fruit Flies’ Brains Make Computers Faster?

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When someone says “computer networks,” the first thing you think about is fruit flies, right? Well, maybe it should be. According to Dr. Ziv Bar-Joseph, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the authors of a paper called “A Biological Solution to a Fundamental Distributed Computing Problem,” fruit flies and parallel processing share a similar problem.

I’ll let him explain:

Network applications rely on organizing nodes to determine routing and how to control processors. One method uses a Maximal Independent Set, a technique that identifies a subset of computers that together connect to every other node in the network and provide structure. Determining how to select a MIS is difficult and has been under scrutiny for many years. It turns out that fruit flies solve a similar problem. During brain development, a process called Sensory Organ Precursor selection occurs.

As in computer networks, some cells (SOP) in the brain will become local leaders (MIS) and convey information from the environment to neighboring cells. It’s true, methods for selecting an MIS in computer networks exist. But, until our work with flies, selecting the MIS could not be solved without knowing how many neighbors each network node has. Since flies solve the problem without relying on such knowledge, determining how they do it becomes an important question. The answer could lead to robust and efficient computational methods.

It’s a solution that came around by accident–one of Bar-Joseph’s co-authors on the paper had a student studying fruit flies–but not necessarily a surprising one. According to Dr. Bar-Joseph:

Biological systems address many challenges presented by computer networking. For instance, biological processes are often distributed, as are communication systems used by computers. Thus, I believe, solutions for many computer-network problems can be based on what we learn from biological systems… While biology doesn’t necessarily try to find the optimal solution every time, solutions it does come up with (at least the ones that survive) are often robust and adaptable.

As long as this doesn’t mean that we’ll have to feed the internet olives in order to work in the future, I’m all in favor of this bio/tech crossover. Just don’t worry if your computers start to make a buzzing sound anytime soon.

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