Autonomous flying robot has a honey bee brain

UK scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex have kicked off an ambitious project to produce the first accurate computer model of a honey bee brain.

According to Dr. James Marshall, the model will be used to advance the current (limited) understanding of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how animals think.

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 plan to create the first flying robot capable of sensing and acting as autonomously as a bee, rather than just carrying out a pre-programmed set of instructions.

If successful, this project will meet one of the major challenges of modern science: building a robot brain that can perform complex tasks as well as the brain of an animal.

Tasks the robot will be expected to perform? Finding the source of particular odors or gases in the same way that a bee can identify particular flowers.

 If successful, the artificial brain could ultimately be used for search and rescue missions, or even mechanical pollination of crops.

“The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in Artificial Intelligence,” said Marshall. “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.”

Dubbed “Green Brain,” and partially supported with hardware donated by Nvidia, the project invites comparison with the IBM-sponsored Blue Brain initiative, which is developing brain modeling technologies using supercomputers with the ultimate goal of producing an accurate model of a human brain.

The hardware provided by Nvidia is based on high-performance GPU accelerators and provides an efficient method of performing the massive calculations needed to simulate a brain using a standard desktop PC – rather than on a large, expensive supercomputing cluster.

“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. We expect that in many areas of science this technology will eventually replace the classic supercomputers we use today,” said Dr. Thomas Nowotny. 

”Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modeling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modeling and computational neuroscience projects.”

Of course, the research is also 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. 

To be sure, Green Brain’s modeling could also help scientists to understand why honey bee numbers are dwindling and also contribute to the development of artificial pollinators, such as those being researched by the National Science Foundation-funded Robobees project, led by Harvard University.