Special: The Bee’s Brain — The Green Brain Project

2013: 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 sometimes done with athletes.

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 of 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, 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.

It’s crashing is even more discouraging when you realize that the current prototype is stabilized by a fixed wire.  Also, it needs a cord.  Figuratively speaking, you have to plug it into the wall, because there is no battery both powerful enough and lightweight enough for the Robo-Bee to lift into the air.  But that’s not all it will have to lift.  It will also need an onboard flight computer to direct it.  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 the current Robo-Bee’s performance may be, its 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 after all the issues discussed above are resolved.  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,” 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 that 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 bee hives throughout the world.  Of course, scientists designed “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 just starts 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, 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” when developing artificial intelligence that operates independently of human intelligence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 July 2013

In an episode of the animated television series, King of the Hill, one of the characters says, “Truth is like sunlight. People used to think it was good for you.” Probably, your great-grandmother would have said that you should always tell the truth and that you should stay healthy by getting outdoors in the sunlight.

For the last 50 years, however, most of us have been splashing on sunscreen, wearing special sunglasses and opaque outerwear in an effort to avoid the sun’s rays. In other words, we have been avoiding unfiltered sunlight like the plague. The plague we were avoiding was skin cancer. However, recent research seems to indicate that there is a cost to our sunless lifestyle. Perhaps, “cost” is the wrong word. A better word is “tradeoff.”

In the UK, and throughout the world, greater numbers of both children and adults are suffering serious Vitamin D deficiencies. Human beings and animals naturally make Vitamin D when solar UV (ultraviolet) rays shine on our exposed skin. When we started hiding from the sun, dietary supplements were supposed to provide the daily nutritional requirement once supplied almost exclusively by the sun’s rays. However, for many, oral supplements do not seem to be providing even the minimum Vitamin D needed to maintain health.

Throughout the organic world, sunlight is closely related to the production of Vitamin D. Exposing organic substances to direct sunlight is the primary method used to produce Vitamin D for human supplements. Milk, when exposed to sunlight, develops an extremely effective form of the vitamin called D3.

Normal levels of Vitamin D do more than prevent a malformation of the bones called rickets. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to hypertension, depression, obesity, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, the biggest of them all, heart disease.

University of Edinburgh scientists discovered that our skin, when exposed to sunlight, releases nitric oxide into our blood, which helps lower blood pressure and protect the heart from disease, cardiac arrest, strokes, and attacks. Statistically, our reduced exposure to sunlight may have increased heart disease more than it decreased skin disease. Indeed, rates of skin cancer have continued to increase even as our exposure to potentially carcinogenic UV rays has decreased.

Certainly, there are disadvantages to avoiding sunlight. After all, human beings as a species have lived and thrived for thousands of years with direct exposure to substantial levels of UV rays. So, maybe sunlight is good for us. Or . . . maybe it isn’t.

As we hear the latest discoveries describing the benefits of sunlight, it is important to remember that UV rays are also used to sterilize medical instruments. There are even special UV lamps that are placed in heating and cooling ducts to kill mold, bacteria, and viruses in the air. These must be installed deep within the ductwork to avoid exposing people to the direct light of these lamps. But why does this kind of lamp light pose a danger to people?

What we call sunlight contains a particular range of the UV radiation that seriously damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses. The damage can be so severe that these small organisms cannot successfully reproduce. So they die. That is how UV radiation kills germs. That same range of UV radiation can do the same thing to human skin cells. The light damages the cell’s DNA causing cell death or genetic mutation, which can lead to the development of skin cancer. The potentially carcinogenic effects of UV radiation are both direct and well understood. It would be unwise to ignore this danger.

So, what is the answer? Do we bask in the sun or avoid the sun? Without giving medical advice, as I am not qualified to do so, I’ll venture a guess. Perhaps neither seeking nor avoiding the sun is the answer. Rather, what is needed is moderation. Based on your skin type, and with consideration of your individual risk factors, moderate exposure to sunlight is probably healthy and less risky than is generally thought. So, exposure to a moderate amount of unfiltered sunshine is a good thing. However, if you regularly work or play outdoors, the prolonged exposure is probably less healthy and more risky. So, break out the sunscreen, UV sunglasses, and protective outerwear. With prolonged UV exposure, these precautions just make good sense.

Also, keep in mind that excessive sunlight has unfortunate cosmetic effects causing premature aging of the skin. The word “tan,” to describe the effects of sunlight on human skin, also describes the process used to produce leather goods. Leather shoes look good. Leather faces do not.

On a lighter and stranger note, a woman in Seattle, Navenna Shine, is planning to live on sunshine. She hopes to survive on light without any food other than water and tea. Her “Living on Light Experiment” is based on an Indian regimen practiced by a group called inediates, who live without food. Correction: Inediates “say” they live without food. It is widely reported that modern practitioners of this ancient discipline have almost all been caught cheating. Reportedly, one was even caught in a fast food restaurant. Of course, we should be sympathetic. If, as most suspect, living without food is fatal, sneaking an occasional Happy Meal isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Selected Sources:

Sunlight Could Reduce Death Rate From All Causes

Scared of the Sun – the Global Pandemic of Vitamin D Deficiency
Information on Vitamin D

5 Amazing Properties of Sunlight You’ve Never Heard About

Radiation: A Sterilization Method

Disinfection: An Overview – Ultraviolet Radiation Ultraviolet Radiation

Can People Live on Only Sunlight and Water?

“Truth is like sunlight. People used to think it was good for you.”

King of the Hill, Season 2: Episode 14 “Remember Mono”

[n9] Am I deficient in Vitamin D? | Vitamin D Council

http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/about-vitamin-d/am-i-deficient-in-vitamin-d/

[n10] Hypovitaminosis D – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypovitaminosis_D

[n11] Time in the Sun: How Much Is Needed for Vitamin D? – US News and World Report

http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/heart/articles/2008/06/23/time-

in-the-sun-how-much-is-needed-for-vitamin-d

[n12] How do I get the vitamin D my body needs? | Vitamin D Council

http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/about-vitamin-d/how-do-i-get-the-vitamin-d-my-body-

needs/

[n13] How Much Sun Exposure Do I Need for Vitamin D?

http://nutrition.about.com/od/askyournutritionist/f/sunlight.htm