Tiny insect brains beat our best computers

Dragonfly

The brains of dragonflies are exceptionally powerful computers. [Image: CC Flickr]

We don’t normally think of insects as very intelligent creatures. But in fact we are learning that insect brains are absolute wonders of fast, efficient, powerful computation.

The most powerful supercomputers we have today are probably close to being as powerful as a tiny insect brain. But the computers weigh millions of times more and use billions of times more power!

And that’s not the biggest hurdle. Even if our computers are powerful enough, we still have no idea how to program them to make them do the amazing things that even ‘simple’ insects are capable of.

Here is one example: The brains of many flying insects contain neurons (brain cells) that are able to ‘lock on’ to other flying targets. We call these neurons ‘small target motion detectors’ (STMDs).

Dragonflies, for example, are able to hunt down smaller flying insects and literally snatch them out of the sky. Despite having tiny brains, they do this with lightning speed in cluttered environments like thick vegetation without losing track of their targets, or getting distracted by shadows, or crashing into anything.

A team of scientists in Australia are studying the dragonfly brain to try to understand how they accomplish these amazing feats. They are starting to uncover some of the principles that the STMD neurons use to lock on to a target:

  • If there are multiple targets (i.e. several STMD neurons responding simultaneously) the best target is selected and the other neurons are temporarily shut down.
  • Once a target is selected, the STMD neuron that is tracking it starts responding even more strongly over time. This makes it easier for the dragonfly to ignore distractions, and also to track the target if it is temporarily obscured (e.g. by flying behind something).

So far, the scientists have tested these theories only in computer simulations. Even so, they have discovered some interesting facts – for example, how long an STMD neuron continues to fire strongly controls how long the dragonfly will keep trying to chase a target that has disappeared, and the dragonfly brain seems to use the optimal setting for catching its prey!

Next, the scientists are going to translate their findings into a robot to test their theories in the real world. They admit, however, that they are still a long way from understanding everything about how the dragonfly brain tracks flying targets, homes in, and catches them.

So when it comes to vision and movement, even minuscule insect brains outclass our best computers.

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