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Sussex scientists help build computer model of honey bee brain

A related brain model of the olfactory brain parts of a bee. The little balls are the neurons (brain cells) and the golden lines are connections (synapses), through which the cells communicate

The robot - a commercially available remote-controlled model - that the bee brain will "control" instead

University of Sussex scientists are working with partners at the University of Sheffield to produce the first accurate computer models of a honey bee brain in a bid to advance understanding of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how animals think.

The team will build models of the systems in the brain that govern honey bee vision and sense of smell.

Using this information, the researchers aim to create an autonomous flying robot, comprising an off-the-shelf flying robot and a bee-like “brain” in the form of a computer program. Instead of flying around via a remote control held by a human, the robot would be able to sense and act as autonomously as a bee.

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, 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.

Called “Green Brain”1, and partially supported with hardware donated by NVIDIA Corporation, the project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The name Green Brain 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.

Dr Thomas Nowotny is a member of the University of Sussex Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, and the leader of the Sussex team, whose role is to develop the software that supports simulating a real-sized bee brain fast enough to control the robot in real time.

The Sussex team will also be looking to find out more about how the olfactory brain, controlling the bee’s highly developed sense of smell, actually works in the bees.

The hardware provided by NVIDIA is based on high-performance processors called “GPU accelerators” that generate the 3D graphics on home PCs and games consoles and power some of the world’s highest-performance supercomputers. These accelerators provide a very efficient way of performing the massive calculations needed to simulate a brain using a standard desktop PC rather than on a large, expensive supercomputing cluster.

Dr Nowotny says: “NVIDIA’s GPU accelerators are an important part 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 and pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots. We also believe the computer modelling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modelling and computational neuroscience projects.”

Dr James Marshall, leading the £1 million project in Sheffield, says: “The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in Artificial Intelligence. 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.”

Green Brain’s researchers anticipate 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.

Dr Marshall says: “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.”

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

Green Brain’s modelling could 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.

Notes for editors

1The Green Brain project is so-named because the company colours of hardware provider NVIDIA are green. Computer giants IBM were the sponsors of the far more ambitious Blue Brain project (IBM’s corporate colour is blue), which tried to simulate part of the human brain.

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Last updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2012