Put these three together and what do you get? According to a research project called Green Brain, for starters you get the first comprehensive computer model of the brain of a honeybee. Then you get to use the model to create a brain for the first flying robot that can make its own decisions literally “on the fly,” responding to odors and other stimuli like a real honeybee. As for the Toulouse connection, those are no ordinary beekeepers — they form one of the world’s leading bee research teams at the Université de Toulouse, Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale.
The Green Brain and Computer Games
The Green Brain moniker is meant to echo the Blue Brain human intelligence initiative, which is forging ahead on IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer.
For Green Brain, a research team at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex in England will use hardware from Texas-based NVIDIA Corporation, which specializes in accelerated processing for ultra high-performance supercomputers.
NVIDIA’s processors are also used to create the 3-D graphics in computer games, and that is what attracted the Green Brain team. Rather than using a conventional supercomputer configuration, which is both massive and expensive, Green Brain will run its high-volume calculations on standard desktop computers.
If the project is a success on desktop PC’s, by the way, it could open up a new era of faster, cheaper and less energy intensive research.
About Those Flying Robots…
When you think about autonomous flying robots, nowadays it’s pretty hard not to think about drone warfare (yep, now go ahead and try it). However, as with any other technology, there are important civilian applications as well as military uses for drones, and the operation of an actual flying device is a critical step in testing the Green Brain computer model.
The research teams expects that lessons learned from Green Brain will provide new insights into neuroscience projects for human cognition. Green Brain could also be used to design autonomous robots used in agriculture (including artificial pollination), construction and maintenance, or manufacturing; or for exploration and research, emergency response including search-and-rescue, and environmental monitoring.
Green Brain could interweave with other kinds of honeybee research, such as a DARPA-funded project that involves using real honeybees for bomb detection.
The team also anticipates that an improved understanding of honeybee behavior could help gain insights into colony collapse disorder and other honeybee afflictions.
But These are No Ordinary Beekeepers!
Research at the Université de Toulouse has been instrumental in establishing that the tiny bee brain is capable of abstract thinking, and is proportionally as capable as human brains when it comes to certain cognitive functions.
In partnership with a team from Australia, researchers from Toulouse recently demonstrated that individual honeybees could be trained to navigate a maze, by learning rules based on visual relationships such as above/below.
Translated into a computer model, the research could lead to a robotic brain that has visual capabilities almost as advanced as human sight.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.