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Could fungal computers help ease workplace stress?

Every April, Stress Awareness month aims to bring to light the negative effects of workplace anxiety. Awareness, though, may not be the problem. Britain knows it is stressed: half of UK employees say they’re “very” or “fairly” stressed at their jobs, and four in 10 worry about work outside of office hours. At a global level, 65% of employees regularly experience stress or anger daily, according to Gallup.

Too much stress is bad for us, leading to health problems, from insomnia and fatigue to cardiovascular issues and anxiety. With a stonking 78% of employees saying they’d leave their jobs due to stress, according to a report by employee benefits firm Unum UK, this isn’t just a health issue, but an issue for employers struggling to retain talent too. 

In fictional worlds, from the Jetsons to Wall-E, technology has stepped in to do the work for us and make our lives less stressful – with varying results. But despite the prominence of technology in our daily lives, we seem to be more and more stressed each year. Can innovation really help us – or are we doomed to remain stressed forever?

Leaps in technology, combined with greater understanding of mental health, are encouraging technologists to explore more out-of-the-box approaches to tackling stress. 

Some organisations are experimenting with virtual-reality systems to transport employees to more serene places. 

If that sounds a little dystopian – as when Russian cattle had VR headsets strapped to their heads to relieve bovine anxiety – research suggests that this is actually pretty effective in reducing biochemical stress in humans, albeit only in the short term

Meanwhile, other businesses have built smart ‘neurotech’ headbands that detect brainwaves, allowing wearers to collect data points on their stress levels and plan accordingly. 

We may not have to buckle objects to our heads to learn the secrets of our stress. One possible avenue for more targeted stress detection is fungus-based computing materials, a new type of computing that fuses mechanical electronics with biology. 

Recording electrical activity of split gill fungi Schizophyllum commune. Irina Petrova Adamatzky

Andrew Adamatzky is professor of unconventional computing at the University of the West of England. He runs a ‘wetware’ lab that investigates everything from sensors using single-cell biological organisms such as slime moulds, to electronic circuits orchestrated by swarms of soldier crabs. 

Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus, communicates with trees through underground ‘Mycorrhizal networks’ and possibly exhibits spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory. At the cutting edge of this mushroom-based research are theories that this all constitutes a kind of collective, fungal mind

In lab experiments, Adamatzky and his team exposed oyster mushrooms to hydrocortisone – an analogue to the stress hormone cortisol – and the mycelium responded electrochemically. Accordingly, a recent paper by Adamatzky proposes that mycelium could one day be integrated in biosensing wearables that detect human stress levels. Picture this: mycelial material weaved into wristbands, headbands and bracelets, or even melded with everyday objects such as furniture or keyboards.

A mushroom motherboard. Andrew Adamatzky

This new material might even help robots to ‘feel’, using something called ‘fungal skin’, a thick layer of pure mycelium grown in liquid culture. “Fungal skin responds to tactile and optical stimulation with distinctive patterns of electrical activity,” says Adamatzky.

For humans, tapping into this mushroom intelligence could lead to other kinds of fungus-based sensors, which Adamatzky says could “monitor various health parameters, such as body temperature, hydration levels, or even detect pollutants in the environment”. 

Although these computing systems are in their infancy, this fungal future could have broad applications, especially in life sciences. Because these would be biological systems, the smart objects like biodegradable sensors could even be compostable. “Once they’ve served their purpose, they can naturally decompose, reducing electronic waste,” Adamatzky says.

[This is an extract of Raconteur's article on Stress in the Workplace.]


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