New Study Says Bees Understand the Concept of Zero—And That Could Transform AI

Monday, 11 June 2018 - 11:28AM
Neuroscience
Artificial Intelligence
Monday, 11 June 2018 - 11:28AM
New Study Says Bees Understand the Concept of Zero—And That Could Transform AI
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Image credit: Unsplash

Despite having tiny brains, bees can communicate with one another via elaborate dances, build their hives out of lattices of hexagonal cells, and even remember human faces. Still, it's amazing that bees can apparently handle a concept that even the ancient Romans had trouble with: The concept of zero.



According to a new study by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, a recent experiment tested honeybees on their ability to distinguish between two images with more or less elements, with a reward of sugar solution for the bees that correctly identified pictures with fewer elements.

 

After finding that bees could correctly distinguish between a picture with three elements and one with only two (then two and only one), the researchers decided to try testing their reaction to an image with that had nothing on it (representing zero) versus a picture with an identifiable number of elements.

 

The bees chose the picture of nothing, apparently showing that their ability to count includes the concept of zero.



According to Adrian Dyer, one of the co-authors of the study:

 

"Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily—it takes children a few years to learn. We've long believed only humans had the intelligence to get the concept, but recent research has shown monkeys and birds have the brains for it as well. What we haven't known—until now—whether insects can also understand zero."



What makes this discovery potentially groundbreaking is that honey bees only have about one million neurons in their brains, compared to a human's 86 billion.

 

If bees are able to pull off abstract numerical concepts like zero with limited brainpower, they may be an excellent model for designers of artificial intelligence.

 

According to Dyer: "If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple efficient ways to teach AI new tricks."



Sure, they may not be the most "intelligent" of animals, but so far it looks like honeybees are using their limited brainpower to become: 1) miniature architects, 2) improbable aviators, and 3) tiny counting machines.

 

Time to step up your game, dolphins.

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