AI gets a buzz from bee brains

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Scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex, in the UK, are embarking on an ambitious project to produce the first accurate computer models of a honey-bee brain in a bid to advance Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The team will build models of the systems in the brain that govern a honey bee’s vision and sense of smell. Using this information, the researchers aim to create the first flying robot able to sense and act as autonomously as a bee, rather than just carry out a pre-programmed set of instructions.

Tasks the robot will be expected to perform, for example, will include finding the source of particular odours or gases in the same way that a bee can identify particular flowers. It is anticipated that the artificial brain could eventually be used in applications such as search and rescue missions, or even mechanical pollination of crops.

Dr James Marshall, leading the project in Sheffield, said that in Artificial Intelligence research so far: ‘researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys, and humans, but actually “simpler” organisms such as social insects have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities.’

Called ‘Green Brain’, the project has received £1m in funding from the UK Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and is partially supported with hardware donated by Nvidia. ‘Using Nvidia’s massively parallel GPU accelerators for brain models is an important goal of the project, as they allow us to build faster models than ever before,’ explained Dr Thomas Nowotny, the leader of the Sussex team.

The researchers hope that developing a model of a honey bee brain will offer a more accessible method of driving forward our knowledge of how a brain’s cognitive systems work, leading to advances in understanding animal and human cognition. ‘Because the honey bee brain is smaller and more accessible than any vertebrate brain, we hope to eventually be able to produce an accurate and complete model that we can test within a flying robot,’ said Dr Marshall.

Alongside this, the research is expected to provide a greater understanding of the honey bee itself. Because of their role as pollinators, honey bees are vital to many ecosystems, yet their declining population in recent years has given scientists cause for concern.