Summary:

Building a robotic bee that acts like a real bee is a lot more complicated than programming a robot to fly around from flower to flower. A project called Green Brain aims to build an artificial intelligence system that can actually mimic a bee’s brain.

In the near future, we might have to be a little more careful about swatting pesky bees while we’re trying to enjoy some time outdoors. British researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Sheffield are developing a computer model of a bee’s brain that they hope can help scientists better understand the brains of more-complex animals, such as humans, and perhaps power artificial intelligence systems for bee-like robots.

Called “Green Brain,” the project is trying to advance the science of AI beyond systems that just follow a predetermined set of rules, and into an area where AI systems can actually act autonomously and respond to sensory signals. The researchers are focusing on the parts of a bee’s brain responsible for vision and sense of smell, and will expect the system to be able to find the “source of particular odours or gases in the same way that a bee can identify particular flowers,” among other things.

Although a very difficult mission to accomplish, the relatively narrow focus of this project should make it easier to pull off than other AI efforts that focus on more-complex human brains. Scientists have tried modeling human decision-making for decades, but humans’ irrationality and seemingly random choices make it difficult to do so outside of specific situations or controlled experiments.

The Green Brain team suggests its AI system could be used to power robotic bees that can help pollinate plants in the face of declining bees populations worldwide, and also could be beneficial in search-and-rescue missions. In order to carry out any of these tasks, researchers have to design systems that are capable of adapting to the world around them. Especially when acting as a research tool for understanding how bees react to sensory stimuli in the manners they do, too strong a reliance on fixed rules and instructions about how it should act might limit the effectiveness of a robotic bee.

The RoboBees prototpye

The researchers working on Green Brain think its work on AI might physically manifest itself in a project like RoboBees, which is currently underway by a group at Harvard University. Aside from pollination and search-and-rescue, the RoboBees team suggests its robotic bees could be used for weather-mapping, traffic -monitoring and even military surveillance. That project also focuses heavily on bees’ colony behavior to coordinate group decision-making and action.

Of course, robotic bees are as much hardware as they are artificial intelligence — how they consume and process data will affect how the decisions they ultimately make — which is why various research projects might want to combine their forces to some degree. Whereas Green Brain has partnered with GPU manufacturer Nvidia to ensure fast modeling and fast calculations within the bees’ brains, RoboBees is working on the whole package. It’s building sensors, wings and everything else necessary to make a robotic bee fly and sense the world like an actual insect.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Andrej Vodolazhskyi.

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