BT living in a bacterial world

Telco employs brainless organisms (and no, we're not talking about its customer service staff...)

Telco employs brainless organisms (and no, we're not talking about its customer service staff...)

The modern business person's desk is increasingly occupied by a swarm of small computing devices - mobile phone, PDA, laptop, and computer. Working out how these systems will interoperate will be a key challenge of the future of telecommunications, and BT's researchers are looking at the behaviour of bacteria to work out how to get electronic devices to work together. BT researcher Ian Marshall said: "The motivation for looking into the natural world is that they have these self-organising systems." BT employs hundreds of scientists to conduct this kind of speculative research at its Adastral Park research centre at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. They have looked at numerous microbes, and even ants and fireflies, but it was the behaviour of bacterial colonies called stromatolites that provided the breakthrough. Stromatolite colonies have no hierarchy, but every bacterium in the colony knows what to do by communicating with the others in a non-hierarchical manner. The short-range radio networking standard, Bluetooth, already allows multiple devices to link, but they have to be configured as "masters" and "slaves". BT hopes that by using an algorithm derived from the bacteria, they will eventually be able to organise themselves automatically as equals. A simulation with 3,000 devices has already proved a success. BT's research has concentrated on invertebrates because they are more predictable. Says Marshall: "They don't have high levels of neural awareness that we don't know how to model. They're behaviour is fairly deterministic, and we wanted that predictability." The last thing you want is a population of desktop devices that imitates the behaviour of a group of chimpanzees. Stromatolites also share genetic information across the members of the colony, and BT hopes it may one day be possible to share information, such as contact addresses, in the same way. Marshall reckons the research will make it to the market in five to ten years, but it could happen sooner. He said: "It would depend on whether there is a company that is prepared to run with this. We are definitely open to offers."