We’re halfway toward artificially intelligent robotic bees

Remember those artificially intelligent robotic bees I wrote about in October? Well, it turns out they’re already on a good pace toward being reality: The RoboBees project at Harvard has been flying prototype bees for months, and the next step is equipping them with brains.

That the bees, which are described as being half the size of a paperclip and weighing less than a tenth of a gram, can fly at all is an engineering marvel in its own right given their minute size. However, the next parts of the project could actually prove to be even bigger challenges.

According to a Harvard University press release:

[T]he next steps will involve integrating the parallel work of many different research teams that are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

Source: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

Source: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The problems are that building AI-powered brains won’t be easy and that there’s not yet an energy source small enough and dense enough to power a wireless bee.

On the brain side, though, the RoboBees team might have some help. As we explained in October, there’s a team from the Universities of Sussex and Sheffield in the U.K. working on a project called Green Brain that aims to develop a brain that could let robotic bees like those RoboBees is building act autonomously and respond to sensory stimuli.

Again, though, the small scale of the Harvard project could pose some initial challenges depending on how advanced it wants the brain to be. The plan is for the Green Brain project to run on a GPU-powered supercomputer and, presumably, communicate with sensors on the robot. Even if it were possible for a single GPU processor to run the Green Brain at operational speed, that could still prove too big for the tiny RoboBees, which need to do their own processing.

The key to success, however, might lie in RoboBees’ focus on colony behavior, which is somewhat akin to the concepts underlying distributed computing systems. Because the team expects the robotic bees to function like real honeybee colonies, individual bees can get by with less computer power.