In a world that’s embracing new technology, inspiration is being found in bug behaviour. The hard-bodied dung beetle is now key to robotics research, in Africa too.
Under a scorching African sun in the Kalahari Desert, 70kms outside Vryburg, a town situated in the North West Province of South Africa, researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits in South Africa) and Lund University, Sweden, monitor the movements of a dung beetle in windy conditions.
The insect, with a rotund body and metallic luster, resembling a miniature cyborg, is expertly rolling away a ball of dung, oblivious to the gaze of science.
The researchers aim to explore more about what influences the dung beetle’s movements.
They find that it uses visual cues such as the sun, polarized light, color gradients, intensity gradients in the sky, and even the Milky Way, as external reference points.
The insect uses the sun as a direction tool but what happens after dusk? The researchers find that in windy conditions, the dung beetle switches from using the sun as a navigator to using the wind.
Astounded by this discovery early this year is Marcus Byrne, one of the researchers from Wits.
Having studied dung beetles for over 20 years, he believes that this new knowledge from a tiny being could influence the bigger world of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
“We have gone from massively complicated to as simple as possible, using insects as a model,” he says.
In Byrne’s office at Wits, dozens of dung beetle replicas sit on his bookshelf that’s also heaving with thick volumes and encyclopedias on entomology.
A large poster of a dung beetle, almost in flight, hangs on a wall. To tech geeks and film buffs used to the sci-fi genre, this would look more like a still from the Transformers movie series.
Byrne excitedly scavenges for an apparatus used to illustrate how the dung beetle’s brain works.
The insect has a navigation feature, such as switching from the sun to the wind, and an orientation feature that Byrne explains in detail.
Orientation means the dung beetle is able to maintain its body in a straight line to a specific direction, whilst navigation means that it is able to know where it is, relative to something else.
Being able to switch between the two is an amazing skill for insect life to have, according to Byrne.
Some dung beetles can operate with one of the systems while others can operate with both.
For Byrne, the dung beetle species the researchers worked on was only able to use its system of orientation.
“What makes this feature of the dung beetle key to researchers and robotics, is that unlike other insects such as the bee, the dung beetle does not need to be trained to do an experiment,” he says.
“She will just roll the ball if you put the dung ball down. And if she is in the mood, she will roll that ball,” he says.
When a dung beetle is in searching mode, it uses its sense of smell to find the dung.
After the dung is found, it rolls it up into a ball and then switches to a visual system to recognize the ball.
“It switches its brain from smell to vision. And we think that that’s because it has a very limited set of neurons. It probably has less than a million neurons in its brain.”
The dung beetle, despite the size of its brain, can process information and decide which sensor to use.
“They are scanning the horizon to look for a large dark object against the horizon and that’s probably a ball, and you could teach a robot to do that,” adds Byrne.
“What you have is a compass with a fallback system that if one cue is not available, another one can be incorporated and if all of the visual cues fail, it still has a mechanical cue,” he says.
In this way, Byrne suggests, it could aid in the development of robots and AI.
“This is the sort of thing that the air force, GPS and anyone who wants to orientate across the planet, [would] want their machines to be able to do,” he says.
“What if the power goes off and what if the battery goes flat or someone shoots down the satellite? Now, you have a natural full-proof system that does not require any external energy inputs, it just uses the signals in nature.
“This is what we can learn from insects, you can solve what appears to be a complex problem by actually having a very simple set of rules,” he says.
Learning from the beetle brain
The dung beetle has a miniscule brain, with less than a million neurons, when compared to the brain of a human being which has over 100 billion neurons.
But despite this, the beetle is still able to use its neurons to process two different sets of inputs at the same time, and can pick from a wide array of inputs to complete a task at any given time.
“It can choose between the polarized light input and the sun input using the same neuron, it just codes the information in a different way,” Byrne says.
When it reads polarized light, the spikes in the neurons are a different pattern from when it reads sunlight.
“This is also dead cool because you have limited computing power and you don’t have to build a new transistor or a new wire or a new gateway for this information.
“You can use the same communicating system. You just code the information differently.
“It is very difficult to convince even an intelligent computer what is the most important piece of information it needs to deal with at any given time,” he says.
After learning about Byrne and his work on dung beetles from an online article, another professor from Wits was interested to see how they could collaborate.
Benjamin Rosman is a principal researcher at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa’s capital Pretoria with a focus on machine learning, AI, robotics and automation.
He also spends his time lecturing at Wits teaching bright-eyed students about the world of robotics, something he is passionate about.
“Robotics and AI have a long history and relationship with understanding living organisms,” Rosman says.
He grew up interested in making computer games but later found AI and robotics much more intriguing.
Now, he believes that the world of robotics has a thing or two to learn from insects.
“On the one hand, you can look at insects to solve robotics’ problems and it’s a general thing we do in AI because there’s already a proof of concept. Living creatures can do intelligent things,” Rosman says.
Robots can be built from understanding the way the insect brain works, for example, the artificial neuron networks Byrne mentioned earlier.
But the roles too can be reversed where these robots can help humans understand insects.
“So you can study these natural phenomena to get a better idea of how to build robots or systems or solve problems, and the flip side of that is you can build robots that help you understand the natural phenomena,” Rosman says.
Insects saving lives?
With modern inventions such as self-driving cars at the cusp of commodification, the word ‘autonomous’ is on everyone’s minds.
Byrne believes that insects such as the dung beetle also have a say in this.
But, forget self-driving cars, Byrne believes learning from the dung beetle could also potentially save lives.
He explains how this could work in a life-threatening situation.
If a robot is programmed to navigate and orientate like the dung beetle, it could do so autonomously if sent into a building that is burning.
The robot would be able to maneuver around the building, find people and alert where the humans are trapped in the building even without being programmed.
“It’s a life-saving device that even if it gets burned in the building, it is not a big deal,” Byrne says.
On another continent, a researcher from Scotland created robots inspired by insects.
Barbara Webb, a professor of robotics at the University of Edinburgh, has been studying insect behavior to build robots for over 10 years.
“Recently, we focused on navigation behavior in insects; so how ants and bees are able to get back to their nests. They started by keeping track of how fast they have moved in each direction and so we have a few hypotheses on how they do that and what brain mechanism is behind that,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
By studying the insects’ brains, she and her team were able to implement and test out the theories they had and built a robot that used a similar mechanism.
One of the robots they built was made of wheels, a mobile phone and mirrors to keep track of their navigation and recognize a route to detect familiarity.
“Insects typically have 360-degree vision and so we try to copy that by having a mirror near the camera to have that kind of 360-degree view,” she says.
“The main reason we are interested in looking at them is because they have managed to do this kind of behavior such as navigation with very small brains, and if you compare that to self-driving cars, which has had very successful research now, but they depend on having very complicated, very detailed sensing, lots of information about the maps of the world that they are moving in and very high degrees of computing, and yet none of them are available to the insect but they still manage to get around very well,” she says.
Is it a bug, robot or cyborg?
The material environment has always taken inspiration from insects and animals.
Biomimicry, as it is called, is an innovative approach to the design and production of materials, structures and systems modeled on biological entities.
Some examples can be seen in modern-day inventions such as the bullet train, inspired by the kingfisher, or wind turbines modeled after humpback whales, and the list goes on.
But an entrepreneur and multi-disciplinary artist in the United States has taken biomimicry to a whole new level.
Ever seen a cyborg-looking-beetle with machine-made parts looking like something out of a sci-fi film?
Well, Mike Libby, founder of Insect Lab Studio in Maine, incorporates this form of aesthetics to his contemporary designs.
He customizes preserved insect specimens with mechanical components, to create art that illustrates science-fiction.
His journey began when he found a dead beetle, dissected it and incorporated into it with watch parts and gears making it look like something out of a Transformers film.
“There are a lot of different things in science fiction and there are a lot of things in real science that create context for this type of work to develop,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
He collects beetles from licensed dealers all over the world, including Africa.
One of the beetles he has collected is the African flower beetle that feeds from the pollen and nectar of flowers. Its biological name is Cetonidae/Eudicella Gralli Orientalis and is 3.5 inches wide.
Libby customized this beetle with his own idea of an exoskeleton, giving it brass and steel parts, gears, a crown, springs, screws, watch jewel, pulley and belt.
Today, he sells these pieces for $500 to over $8,500 to clients all over the world.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, I sold a small beetle to a gentleman in France whose wife’s birthday was coming up and I think that’s where 50% to 60% of the gifts end up, as special gifts,” he says.
He has also created art using crabs and lobsters.
If he can do this using dead bugs and broken technology, imagine what the next few years could be with moving AI, robotics and living insects?
Perhaps we are closer than we think to living in a world with one of the Transformers’ contraptions next door.
Africa’s dung idea
There are about 800 species of dung beetles in South Africa alone, and a wider variety of them on the rest of the continent.
With all this wealth of insects and diversity on our content, it is safe to say that Africa is at a higher advantage than most to develop technological solutions from the natural environment.
With AI and the fourth industrial revolution on the rise, Africa should have clear advantage to merge AI, robotics and insects.
Rosman believes the same.
“I think we have a lot of opportunity here. In the research space, we are always looking for what are the advantages of being in Africa. And I think one of the things we can think about is this kind of natural diversity,” he says.
“The diversity of animals we have here is another big strength which can come into the way we think about machines doing intelligent things.”
Therefore, for Africa to get ahead, ideally, we need to leapfrog into such technologies.
However, there are challenges.
“There’s the technical challenges of how do we build these systems that can work in those kind of ways. Then there are questions around how it interacts with our politics, particularly the unemployment situation,” Rosman says.
The big question, Rosman says is: “Should we be spending government money on building autonomous dung beetles?”
However, the plus side of such innovative tech is the potential it has to encourage young Africans to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
It is important to educate and inform the masses on such trends and how it could enhance our daily lives.
As tech advances, it is possible that we will live in an autonomous world where we don’t have to tell our tech what to do, it will already know what to do and when.
“That’s the world we want to live in, that our technology helps us without us even having to think about it… and I think that’s the kind of thing we could get more easily by studying how animals and insects interact in these kinds of ways,” Rosman says.
Dung may be the currency for the beetle, but maybe the beetle can be the currency for our technology.
With the natural environment at our finger tips, Africa may just have the potential the world has never seen before, thanks to a small, unassuming, rotund insect with a steely resolve.
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In the 1960s, dung beetles from South Africa were introduced in Australia to help improve the quality and fertility of cattle and reduce the population of flies that feed off cattle dung.
The African dung beetle was also introduced in North and South America for the same reason.
Dung beetles assist with nutrient recycling, aeration, soil penetration and pest control.
“They are massively important in any agricultural economy,” Byrne says, adding that the value of dung beetles is in the billions as they play a crucial role in natural and agricultural ecosystems.