To Bee: Biohybridity and learning the ‘language’ of bees
During the week we met Anna, a beekeeper at Prinzessinnengarten, who wondered what it would be like to be a bee for a day. Karl von Frisch discovered that bees possess a ‘language’ through a series of experiments he began in the 1920s. Now scientists following in his wake are attempting to communicate with bees using robots that will ‘live’ amongst bees and with a view to influence their decision making processes and behaviour. Such propositions bring to my mind China Miéville’s science fiction Embassytown, in which humans co-habiting a planet with large insectoid hosts shift the parameters of language across both species—the story’s protagonist is a simile that functions as part of an alien language without the faculty to lie.
The RoboBee Project headed by Raul Rojas at the Freie University Berlin have developed a honeybee robot that can do a basic waggle dance. As can be seen in the segment below, these dancing bots could potentially be used to tell real bees to fly to specific locations.
Project ASSIS|bf coordinated by Dr. Thomas Schmickl of the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz are developing robots that will be able to communicate, adapt and evolve to ‘live’ amongst populations of bees and fish. By focusing on ‘swarm intelligence’ the project proposes to pioneer methods by which humans can interfere in animal societies in order to manage the environment. Schmickl lists various benefits of doing so, ranging from pest control to agriculture, but also considers contemporary human, social media affected society to be a social cyborg in itself. Thus, he reasons, model systems in the lab for studying mixed-societies of robots, algorithms and social organisms are crucial to understanding our own human society.
Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy recounts the the biologist’s lifelong study of honeybees. Seeley, writing in a very personable style, describes how he came to understand the hive as a collective intelligence, and the bee swarms as ‘a kind of exposed brain that hangs quietly from a tree branch’. In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review he offers what we might learn from bees’ collective decision making:
1. Remind the group’s members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively. The scout bees know instinctually that their interests are aligned toward choosing the optimal home site, so they work together as a team. There are no clashing curmudgeons in a bee swarm.
2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option. The scout bees search far and wide to discover a broad assortment of possible living quarters.
3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate. Use the power of a fair and open competition to distinguish good options from bad ones. The scout bees rely on a turbulent debate among groups supporting different options to identify a winner. Whichever group first attracts sufficient supporters wins the debate.
4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. By functioning as an impartial moderator rather than a proselytizing boss, a leader enables his group to use its combined knowledge and brainpower. The scout bees have no dominating leader and so can take a broad and deep look at their options.
5. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group’s members. Only if ideas are shared publicly but evaluated privately will the group be good at exploring its options and making good choices. Scout bees share freely the news of their finds, but each one makes her own, independent decision of whether or not to support a site.
Illustrator, author and beekeeper, M.E.A. McNeil’s summary of the book can be read here and here. Tom Seeley’s 2011 lecture at Cornell University is below.