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THURSDAY: The Bee’s Brain — the Green Brain Project
19 December 2013
Any new project intended to deal with decreasing honeybee populations should probably focus on CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. In case you’ve been shipwrecked on a desert island for about seven years or have been really busy, during that period of time, you’ve probably heard that honeybee populations throughout the world are declining at an alarming rate. The cause of the current decline is unknown, but has a name, Colony Collapse Disorder.
There have been mass bee die-offs since the beginning of recorded history. So, for the first few years of the current die-off, there was concern, but not alarm. What’s special about CCD is, first, that it’s worldwide. Historical bee die-offs have been local affairs. Second, historical bee die-off’s have been brief. Our present CCD isn’t stopping, and the bee numbers keep declining. The one thing that CCD has in common with historical die-offs is that no one knows exactly what’s killing the bees.
It’s fashionable to blame pesticides, and almost everyone does, with a new article announcing the discovery of “the cause” appearing every few weeks. It’s sort of like those monthly magazines that feature a “new” diet every month. Each month, it’s “the last diet you’ll ever need.” Then, the next month, a “new” last diet you’ll ever need . . . and on and on. If you believe all this . . . well, we’d all be thin as rails and bees would have stopped dying off years ago.
Here’s the actual puzzle. Bees are weakened, not by one thing, but a number of things happening at the same time. Today’s bee suffers with fatigue from long distance transport, parasites and infections, exposure to pesticides, and these insects are even “drugged” for better performance — something like what’s done to athletes with steroids.
The problem is that no single one of these factors, alone, would kill a bee. Worse, even all these factors, together, wouldn’t kill a bee. Unfortunately, all these factors together will weaken a bee’s immune system to the point that the insect will contract and die from a completely unrelated disease.
So, finding the cause of CCD is a bit like solving the old puzzle called Rubrics Cube. You have to line up combination after combination. Except, unlike the puzzle, after you line up a particular combination, you have perform lengthy tests, again and again, until you find the “right” combination. Sadly, long before the combination is found, the bees may be gone. Of course, our current honeybees could be replaced, on the one hand, with a less efficient species imported from somewhere else or, on the other, with an efficient, but really mean and dangerous species (Africanized).
Strangely, the only thing that would take longer than finding the cause of CCD would be to build a robotic bee. However, that’s what a lot of people are trying to do. Robo-Bee is most definitely a thing of the future. The best current prototype has just mastered a few seconds of controlled flight – then it crashes. Prior to this, the old prototype would just take off and crash into the nearest wall without any maneuvers at all.
Robo-Bee’s crashes are even more discouraging when you realize that the current prototype is stabilized by a fixed wire. Also, Robo-Bee “needs a cord.” Figuratively speaking, you have to plug it into the wall, because there is no battery both powerful enough and lightweight enough that Robo-Bee can lift into the air. But that’s not all it will have to lift. Robo-Bee will also need an on-board flight computer to direct its flight. Right now, no computer small enough and light enough exists. And, if it did, there’s not even a prototype of a flight program that could successfully direct the small robotic insect in flight.
Discouraged yet? Well, to their credit, the would-be developers of Robo-Bee aren’t the least discouraged. And, as modest as Robo-Bee’s current performance may be, it’s an incredible achievement. Only with the persistence of the project engineers have a host of seemingly impossible challenges and problems been met and solved. However, it will be a long, long time before the first Robo-Bee rolls off the assembly line, flies into the fields, and begins pollinating.
And there will be even more challenges. We’ve only covered a few of the issues. Even with an on-board computer to direct its flight, how will the Robo-Bee pollinate flowers? Think about it. To do so, these robots would have to see and smell. They’d have to master the varied challenges of the pollination of each individual bloom. To do that, these ‘bots would almost have to be able to . . . think. How are they going to do that? Well, the members of the Green Brain Project “are glad you asked them that question.”
I don’t know how long people have been thinking about the answer to that question but, about a year ago, researchers in Great Britain, specifically, at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex decided to do something about it.
In an article describing the project, George Dvorsky, reports that, late last year, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) put up £1 million (USD $1,614,700) for the development and creation of the “first accurate computer simulation of a honey bee brain.” However, when you consider the challenging goal of the project, even this “front money” is not so very much. After all, the project couldn’t afford the kind of computer muscle that would seem to be needed to tackle a job like this. However, a creative solution to the computer problem has been provided by California’s NVIDIA. That corporation will provide the project with a number of high-performance graphical processing units called GPU accelerators. This will allow the researchers to simulate aspects of a honey bee’s brain by using a large group of paralleled desktop PCs. In other words, put together enough desktops and you can approximate some of the functions of a cluster of supercomputers, but at a fraction of the cost.
However, no matter how much or little money and equipment are involved, this part of the Robo-Bee project, building the bee’s mind, is an even more formidable challenge than building a robotic insect that just flies. The mind of even an insect is breathtakingly complex, but the Green Project researchers are not trying to tackle the replication of the honeybee’s entire brain. Instead they are focusing on only two functions: vision and the sense of smell.
Researchers are attempting to develop cognitive models of sight and smell. To duplicate even part of an actual bee’s brain, you need to study an actual bee or, at least, work with someone who has. That someone is Martin Giurfa of Toulouse, “an expert in all aspects of bee brain anatomy, physiology, and bee cognition and behavior.” The ultimate goal is a robotic bee that can detect particular odors or particular flowers. But, more immediately, the researcher are hoping to develop computer models of these processes that, someday, will be downloaded directly into the “brain” of a robotic bee.
However, the description above understates and ambition of one aspect of this project. The researchers are attempting to develop models with true artificial intelligence. That is, they are attempting to develop a computerized intelligence that will allow a robotic honeybee to act autonomously. Put yet another way, these robotic bees would have the cognitive ability to perform certain basic tasks without pre-programmed instructions.
Such cognitive models are several steps beyond simple programming. Successfully modeling the cognitive processes associated with vision and speech is essential to the development such artificial intelligence. But why?
What do we think about? We think about what we see, smell, hear, feel and taste. Could a human intelligence ever be “designed” without senses and sensory input? No. So, in order to develop a real artificial intelligence — an intelligence that thinks, that intelligence must be “embodied” with those senses that provide the necessary sensory input (something to think about).
Simply put, the concept termed “embodiment,” as applied to robotics, “holds that any true artificial intelligence is impossible unless the robot has sensory and motor skills that connect it to the world.” In other words, without sensory input, cognitive intelligence, as we know it, wouldn’t exist.
The envisioned final version of Robo-Bee will be able to think.
These, and other projects, reach far beyond our current technological abilities and promise innovations that are scarcely imaginable. A thinking robotic bee is just one step away from more sophisticated social integrations leading, perhaps, to a thinking hive that would autonomously send certain robotic bees to certain locations, monitor honey and pollen reserves and so on.
There’s something both fascinating and frightening about thinking machines. I must admit my mind wanders to sci-fi. I can’t help thinking of the 1984 film, Terminator, in which the artificially intelligent Skynet initiates a planned extermination of the human race to allow intelligent machines to take over the world.
Imagine a bee version of Skynet, maybe, “Buzznet,” coordinating all activities of all beehives throughout the world. Of course, scientists design “Buzznet” to “help” the few remaining organic honeybees. Sure. We know where this is going.
“Buzznet” promptly tries to wipe out all the remaining biological bees. The few survivors will be herded into special detention hives, and come to depend on John . . . , no, Jane Connor. (All active bees are female).
Of course, Buzznet will develop a robotic terminator bee and send it back through time to kill Jane’s queen and mother. Because bees are not easy to find in crowded hives, the Terminator bee will just start killing them all. In our film, this is the cause of CCD — Terminator bees from the future.
As silly as all this sounds, I wonder . . . .
As technology advances to almost unimaginable frontiers including the development of artificial intelligences that operate independently of biological intelligence (in other words, independently of us), perhaps, a cautionary note is in order. Maybe all scientists, technologists and engineers should be forced to take a course featuring 10 to 20 selected sci-fi movies in which good science goes bad. The collection would include more than one film illustrating “what not to do.” Or, at least, what not to do when developing artificial intelligence that operates independently of human intelligence.