Bee-level intelligence

How close are we to having software that can emulate human intelligence? It is hard to tell. One problem with human beings is that we have large brains, with an almost uncountable number of synapses. We have about 86 billion neurons. This does not seem far from the 4.3 billion transistors that can be found in the last iPhone… but a neuron cannot be compared with a transistor, a very simple thing.

We could more fairly compare transistors with synapses (connections between neurons). Human males have about 150 trillion synapses and human females about 100 trillion synapses.

We do not have any computer that approaches 100 trillion transistors. This means that even if we thought we had the algorithms to match human intelligence, we could still fall short simply because our computers are not powerful enough.

But what about bees? Bees can fly, avoid obstacles, find flowers, come back, tell other bees where to find the flowers, and so forth. Bees can specialize, they can communicate, they can adapt. They can create amazing patterns. They can defeat invaders. They can fight for their life.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any piece of software that exhibits this kind of intelligence.

The honey bee has less than a million neurons and it has about a billion synapses. And all of that is determined by only about 15,000 genes (and most of them have probably nothing to do with the brain). I don’t know how much power a bee’s brain requires, but it is far, far less than the least powerful computer you have ever seen.

Bees don’t routinely get confused. We don’t have to debug bees. They tend to survive even as their environment changes. So while they may be well tuned, they are not relying on very specific and narrow programs.

Our most powerful computers have 100s of billions of transistors. This is clearly not far from the computing power of a bee, no matter how you add things up. I have a strong suspicion that most of our computers have far more computing power than a bee’s brain.

What about training? Worker bees only live a few weeks. Within hours after birth, they can spring into action, all of that from very little information.

What I am really looking forward, as the next step, is not human-level intelligence but bee-level intelligence. We are not there yet, I think.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “Bee-level intelligence”

  1. But I’m not sure if it is fair to consider Bee intelligence to be a simple matter of number of neurons. Bees are great at being bees and doing bee things, not “general” intelligence necessarily. They are part of a ecosystem where they co-evolved. For example, they have a great sense of smell and that helps finding food sources with little computational power (compared to using vision, for example).

    What I wonder is: what if we decided to create a robot that acted like a bee, we put all the sensors bees have, how much processing power it would be needed to “emulate” a bee on its environment?

  2. Over the years I have very similar thoughts. But it still looks like an uncharted question. I will be very grateful, if autor could continue this interesting topic of insect intelligence.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree and reached a similar conclusion, albeit with cockroaches rather than bees.

    Contrary to what Solimao and others say, the bee’s intelligence is absolutely general. It is adapted to a different problem-set and a different sensory input than ours but I’m convinced it solves the same problem in the information theory field, if I may.

    If we manage to create a simulation of a bee, we will have solved the hard AGI problem and it’s only a matter of processing power and sensory-tweaking before we can simulate a rat, a dog, a monkey, a smarter monkey (aka human) etc.

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