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Ideas

Brainiac

The slime mold says turn left

Biocomputers are a cool concept that can be hard to get your head around. Popular Science has an eye-
opening, accessible look
at the different ways scientists are manipulating living organisms to perform calculations, including using swarms of spider crabs to calculate vectors and creating genetically modified human cells that can perform addition and subtraction.

But if I were to put money on one of these as the technology of the future, it would be slime mold GPS:

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If crabs are good at clustering together, a single-celled organism that resides in rotting trees—Physarum polycephalum, or slime mold—is surprisingly adept at making maps. [Andrew] Adamatzky and Selim Akl, a computer scientist at Queens University in Ontario, have spent the past few years using slime mold to map networks.

In one experiment, they took a map of Canada, dropped oat flakes (slime-mold food) on the nation’s major cities, and placed the mold on Toronto. It oozed forth to form the most efficient paths to the cities, creating networks of “roads” that almost perfectly mimicked the actual Canadian highway system.

The Pentagon’s magicians

Kevin Golden/Globe staff

Buried inside the New Yorker’s recent profile of the pickpocket magician Apollo Robbins is an intriguing detail: The Department of Defense is working with Robbins to teach military personnel about deception.

What does the military want with magicians? As it turns out, the military cares a lot about “counterdeception,” the art of looking through a ruse and perceiving the real intentions of its foes. Magicians, of course, deceive people for a living—and as a result turn out to be some of the best teachers of a skill that is really hard to learn.

Two primary challenges make counterdeception difficult. The first is psychological—we’re generally overconfident in our ability to perceive what’s happening around us, and once we think we know what’s going on, we stop considering alternative explanations. As a 1981 manual on counterdeception put it, “deception seldom fails when it exploits a target’s preconceptions.”

The second challenge is analytic: Even once you’ve acknowledged you’re being deceived, it’s still very hard to identify the truth amid the many forms the deception could be taking.

On our own we lack the instincts and the processing power to uncover deception consistently. To address this problem, the not-for-profit military support firm MITRE has developed a system called “Analysis of Competing Hypotheses” that formalizes counterdeception. You collect data on a situation, look for data points that seem anomalous, and then work through alternative scenarios that could explain these anomalies.

One of the best-known techniques for this type of counterdeception comes from magician Jeff Busby, who devised what he calls the “Ombudsman’s Method” for searching for discrepant information. In 1984 he gave a lecture at the US Naval Postgraduate School in which he had a group of seasoned intelligence officers watch a video of a magic trick called the Sucker Sliding Die Box. After he instructed them to look carefully at all the gestures and movements that seemed unrelated to the final effect, most were able to figure out how the illusion was achieved.

Run! It’s Michel Foucault!

Programmer Cameron Kunzelmanfrom Atlanta has created a wickedly delightful little video game called “Oh No,” where the goal is to stay one step ahead of the voracious, disembodied head of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Kunzelman came up with the game as a programming exercise but ended up delivering the perfect combination of historical figure and video game avatar. For those who’ve read Foucault, the inexhaustible chomping head is a wry take on his idea that there is an inescapable, panoptic power at the heart of modern society. For those who haven’t—well, being chased by a shaved-headed postmodernist is just sort of hilariously terrifying.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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