Bees’ Tiny Brains Could Change How We Engineer Computers

Honey bees are just plain cool, that’s simply
a fact. They make sure our earth is full of flowers
and food for us and other animals, they have complex social hierarchies, and it turns out,
they can do math. In particular, scientists have recently found
out that bees may understand the concept of zero–the concept of nothing, of the absence
of value. Which is impressive because zero is actually
pretty complicated–it takes human children a couple of years to fully understand it. In order to fully appreciate the buzz around
this discovery, we should explore a couple other things about both bees and the number
zero. Bees, in addition to being an essential pollinator,
are a surprisingly sophisticated model for studying animal cognition–surprising given
they’re an insect. They can understand abstract concepts like
sameness and difference. They can leave the hive, find a new source
of food, remember where that place is in 3-dimensional space and communicate it when they get back
to the hive. They’re just tiny intrepid adventurers,
guys! Ok, so bees are smart. But zero’s not that hard, right? I mean it’s just the smallest number. Or is it?! Zero wasn’t even used as a number in mathematical
calculations until around 5th century C.E., in India, and before we used it as a number
it was difficult to perform even basic calculations. I mean, experts herald the invention of zero
as one of the greatest breakthroughs in mathematics, and without it, we wouldn’t have higher
order math and we wouldn’t have modern computing. So, zero is a nuanced concept. The research group that uncovered these bee
mathematicians trained the bees to choose images containing the lower number of items. For example, when presented with a 3-item
picture and a 4 item picture, they should pick the 3-item picture. This already means that they have an understanding
of quantity and numeracy–the whole idea that there are amounts of things and that one amount
is more than or less than another is pretty complex in itself. But then the researchers added an image with
nothing in it, no items, which the bees had never been exposed to before. And the bees, having been trained to choose
the image with less items, chose the one with nothing, indicating that they understand that
nothing, i.e. zero, is less than something. This is reasoning that until now has only
been observed in animals with larger and more complex brains, like monkeys and parrots and
well, us. The kicker here is that bee brains have fewer
than 1 million neurons. Neuroscientists are surprised that an animal
with this few brain cells is capable of understanding and reasoning around a complex concept like
0–one that took us, human beings, many millenia to wrap our heads around. This research opens up new questions about
how our brain perceives zero, and how this may differ from species to species. But another unexpected result of this study
is computer-related. How do computers deal with zero? If bees can perceive zero with brains of less
than a million neurons, it may have implications for advanced computing. Modern computing, which is number-based, has
a notoriously difficult time with the number zero. They can only recognize is as a number, not
a concept. In mathematical calculations, the computers
we have now may be unable to complete a command if they have to divide by zero–it may even
actively crash the code you’re running, depending on the programming language. Maybe we could use something like bees’
seemingly simple understanding of absence, of nothingness, in our development of artificial
intelligence. Understanding how bees perceive zero without
a number may help us circumvent the perpetual problem of zero and make some serious strides
in our computing capabilities. But also, like, bees are just really smart
and I think maybe they’re gonna be the ones who inherit the earth after us. And frankly, I’m ok with that. Math is hard, but you know what’s easy? Setting up your very own website with Domain dot com is awesome, affordable, reliable,
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online and visit domain dot com. Find out some more about our furry winged
friends in this video over here, and subscribe to Seeker to keep up with all the latest bee
news. And fun fact, experts think that the concept
of zero jumped from Indian philosophical texts to mathematical theory. I never knew math could be so spiritual. I’m Maren, thanks for watching Seeker.

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