If the programming works as the scientists hope, the robo-bee could do things like pinpoint the odor of a gas the way a bee looks for a certain flower. Ordinarily a robot could detect the gas and fly a pre-programmed pattern to find the source. But a bee doesn't have to be told to do that - it learns from experience.
The brain simulations will use hardware from NVIDIA. Graphics processing unit accelerators, used in rendering complex three-dimensional images, will provide a lot of the computing power necessary to simulate a brain, even one as simple as a bee's. Marshall noted that once the program is complete, it will run on a large computer that transmits data to the flying robot, as it isn't yet possible to cram that much computing power into a small space.
Even a bee has a pretty sophisticated brain. So the problem of programming it will be broken up. The team will look at different functions of a bee's brain and simulate those and the interactions between them. Marshall said they hope that the bee behavior will emerge from that interaction.
The project is designed to shed light on how bees think and how artificial intelligence differs. Given that bees are vital to pollination of many crops, the recent stresses on bee populations are a big concern and any new knowledge about how bees navigate their environment would help. It might even be possible to make artificial pollinators. (It remains to be seen whether bees would complain about being replaced by robots).
Tiny Pop-Up Robots Combine Origami and Insects
The actual flying machine - the artificial bee - is being designed by a group at Harvard working on an actual robotic bee. Prior to that, though, the bee brain program will be tested in a more conventional remote controlled flyer. "We'll be using a rather expensive executive toy," Marshall said.
Beyond that, the robo-bee type brain could even be used in a search and rescue drone, or a smarter reconnaissance vehicle. "A human rescuer isn't specifying step by step how to find people," Marshall said.
"With an AI robot you don't have to specify how to solve a problem."
Credit: Henrik Trygg/Corbis