What a maze-solving oil drop tells us of intelligence

DYED pink and doped with acid, the small, inanimate drop of oil is deposited at the entrance to the maze - and immediately sets off towards the exit. A few minutes later, it emerges at the other end.
No one would equate this apparently astonishing problem-solving with intelligence. But new theories on human intelligence and the brain suggest the simple molecular processes governing the oil droplet's apparently smart behaviour may be fundamentally similar to those that govern how we act.

A decade ago Toshiyuki Nakagaki, now at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, reported that the slime mould Physarum polycephalum could negotiate a maze to reach food at the exit. Boldly, his team wrote in Nature: "this implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence".
Now Bartosz Grzybowski, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has shown that a simple oil droplet floating on top of an aqueous solution can also navigate a complex maze - in this case to reach an acid-soaked lump of gel at the exit.
So why does the dumb droplet appear to be moving in an intelligent way? The answer is all around us, says Clark. The aqueous environment surrounding the droplet is structured to such a high degree by the pH gradient that it makes the dumb droplet appear smart. "It's a neat demonstration of just how much problem-solving punch you can get from a minimal internal structure in a nicely enabling environment."
Humans rely on the same trick, says Clark. It forms the basis of the extended mind theory, which Clark and David Chalmers, now at the Australian National University in Canberra, proposed in the late 1990s. They say the division between mind and environment is less rigid than previously thought; the mind uses information within the environment as an extension of itself.

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