Stupid as a fly? Well, not quite!

Saturday, November 21st, 2009 by Roberto Saracco

It has been believed for the last 50 years that our “human” brain can be so smart because it has over 85 billion neurons intricately connected. It is this extremely complex web that gives rise to intelligence and consciousness.

Newer studies carried out by researchers at the Queen Mary University in London are now pointing out that tiny brains, such as the ones of insects may be as smart as much bigger brains.

Testing the IQ of a Honeybee

Testing the IQ of a Honeybee

Queen Mary’s researchers have shown that honeybees can count, categorize similar objects like dogs or human faces, understand the concept of “same” and “different” and perceive what is symmetric and what is asymmetrical. Now that is not like reading Goethe but it is a level of smartness that was not believed possible in such small brains. A honeybee brain weighs only 1 milligram (compare it with our 1.3-1.4 kg or a whale, 9 kg) and has less than a million neurons.

Researchers have found that the size increase of a brain let it work with more precision, higher sensitivity and so on. Clearly it helps in being smarter. However, bigger brains are also bigger because they need to operate bigger bodies, they have more circuits but they are repeating one another. They can control more pieces but not necessarily they do that in a smarter way. According to researchers a bigger brain compares to a bigger hard drive but does not necessarily stands for a better processor.

The new results seem to indicate that counting may be achieved with about a hundred neurons, advanced thinking can be done with a greater but still limited number of neurons and even consciousness can be generated with small neural circuits (as little as a few thousands according to their research): are honeybee conscious? We do not know, yet. But this is quite a change from the assured NO we used to respond to that question.

The results from this study, if confirmed, is important because we almost have the technology to create, in silicon, a honeybee sized brain. The target is to reach that kind of complexity by 2011.

If the hardware is sufficient, than the question is about the software to exploit it. If we find out the way honeybees can distinguish faces and categorize objects in the environment we could replicate that to distinguish images much better than today. iPhoto 9 is attempting (and basically failing) to do smart face recognition. May be iPhoto 10, embedding a bit of honeybee savvy may succeed.


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