From the editor's desk: Funga: The unseen rulers of a new kingdom

28 March 2024 News

Peter Howells, Editor.

Up until a few weeks ago, our classification kingdoms were split into two parts; fauna and flora. I was amazed when I recently read that National Geographic has now changed this and has split the classification into three: fauna, flora, and funga. The term funga is dedicated to the kingdom fungi. Yes, mushrooms now have their own classification, and are regarded as neither plants nor animals. These fungal overlords have been silently shaping whole ecosystems, infiltrating our air and water supply, and sometimes even our own bodies.

Fungi do not produce their own food through photosynthesis like plants. They do, however, live inside or on their food. Their cell walls are made from a cellular material called chitin which is a fibrous substance, and is the same material that an insect’s exoskeleton is made from. However, fungi don’t reproduce like animals. They use spores which are similar to seeds, and could be dispersed across large areas.

What makes fungi really unique and separate from plants and animals can be found underground. Fungi are connected through a vast underground network of interconnected threads that form a mycelium. The largest known mycelial network covers approximately 9 square kilometres, making it the largest individual living organism on Earth.

At this stage, you are probably thinking, “Have I received a copy of National Geographic by mistake?”

No you haven’t, and let me explain. This story ties in perfectly to our electronic engineering world as these vast mycelial networks can be likened to another type of network that is manmade. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a worldwide network made up of nodes. These nodes, which range in size from large machines to IoT sensors as small as your fingernail, are interconnected wirelessly for control and data transmission.

The number of devices or nodes that exist on this IoT network is estimated to be around 17 billion currently, with about two billion nodes being added each year over the last three years. This figure is staggering and amounts to more than two nodes for every living person on Earth.

IoT nodes are typically made up of four components: sensors or actuators, connectivity, data processing, and user interface. And it is in the data processing that IoT has made an exciting turn. Traditionally, IoT nodes have communicated data to a server for powerful and intelligent processing, thereby providing the ‘fuel’ for artificial intelligence. This is now changing, with more power processing capabilities being included at the edge. Edge-AI enables data processing using artificial intelligence algorithms at the sensor. Communication of results, rather than data, is then performed once the processing is complete.

This allows results to be produced faster using less power overall – a win-win situation for all. Manufacturers are rushing to release new products for this market, and all the big names are included: Silicon Labs have their EFR32BG24 series, NXP have their i.MX 95 family, and Analog Devices have their MAX78002 MCUs, to name just a few. All these microcontrollers have AI/ML hardware acceleration to enable intelligent processing at the edge.

With all this technology, one would think that our lives would become simpler, less frantic. But it seems that most people have lost the idea of what it is to actually live – to slow down and take time to smell the roses.

Isn’t it amazing how everything humans design seems to already exist in some form in the animal, plant, or now fungal kingdom. I, for one, am looking forward to the day when I can sit back and relax while machines do the heavy lifting for me. Who knows what we may then discover when we take the time to open our minds to the endless possibilities surrounding us in nature.


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