Insect -> Robot -> Energy-efficient Computing

Insect brains aren’t big. In fact, they’re about the size of a pinhead. Could studying insect navigation and behavior help us get to energy-efficient computing by way of robots? It’s not really a straight line, is it? But it is… and it sure can.

Insects do a lot with their brains, despite the size. They avoid obstacles, navigate in and around plants and trees, and are some of the most efficient and effective predators out there.

Elisabetta Chicca of the University of Groningen studied insect navigation and likens it to the motion parallax we see when driving: the objects closest to us appear to be moving faster than those farther away. It is this apparent motion of things that directs insect navigation.

Flying in curves is too complex for insects. They fly in a straight line, make a turn, then another straight line, etc.

“What we learn from this is:,” says Chicca, “if you don’t have enough resources, you can simplify the problem with your behavior.”

PhD student Thorben Schoepe, under Chicca’s supervision and close collaboration with neurobiologist Martin Egelhaaf of Bielefeld University, developed a model of this insect neuronal activity, basing it on one main principle: always steer toward the area with the least apparent motion.

Using Schoepe’s model as the navigation rules for a robot resulted in the same behavior they saw in insects. Sending the robot down a long corridor resulted in that robot remaining in the middle, as insects would. When put in other spaces with obstacles or small openings, the robot also navigated similarly to insects.

But what does that have to do with energy-efficient computing?

The model gives scientists insight into how insects use what they’ve got so efficiently.

“Much of Robotics is not concerned with efficiency,” says Chicca. “We humans tend to learn new tasks as we grow up and within Robotics, this is reflected in the current trend of machine learning. But insects are able to fly immediately from birth. An efficient way of doing that is hardwired in their brains.”

Chicca’s research group previously developed a chip with a surface area smaller than a keyboard key. In the future, she hopes to incorporate this specific insect behavior in a chip. Her plans?

“Instead of using a general-purpose computer with all its possibilities, you can build specific hardware; a tiny chip that does the job, keeping things much smaller and energy-efficient.”

What do you think?

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