Robots Help Bees Talk to Fish

Using robots as intermediaries, a school of zebra fish communicate with a colony of bees

Robots Help Bees Talk to Fish
Image: Thomas Schmickl/Karl-Franzens University of Graz and Frank Bonnet/EPFL
When honeybees and zebra fish, isolated from each other, were allowed to interact through robot intermediaries, researchers observed collective decision-making behaviors between the two animal groups.

I am honestly not sure whether fish have any concept of bees. I am equally unsure whether bees have any concept of fish. I am even more unsure whether bees and fish could be friends, if they knew that the other existed. But thanks to robots, it turns out that the answer is definitely yes.

The video really doesn’t communicate a whole lot about what’s going on here, but the central question is whether robots can usefully mediate communications between groups of very different animals in such a way that long distance interspecies collective behavior becomes possible. The answer appears to be yes, which isn’t a total surprise: We’ve known for a while that robots can communicate with both bees and zebra fish, in the sense that the actions of a robot that mimics the behavior of an animal can, in turn, predictably and interactively alter the animals’ behavior. And once you’ve got bees communicating with robots, and fish communicating with robots, the final step of getting the two robots to talk to each other is relatively straightforward.

So how did this method of indirect, robotically mediated communication affect the behavior of the fish and bees? In a mostly proof-of-concept demonstration, the researchers let the biohybrid system collectively choose a direction of movement. If the real fish started swimming clockwise, for example, a robot fish would join them, while telling the robot bees (really just two stationary pylons that emitted gentle heat) “let’s go clockwise!” The robot bees would then also move clockwise (or, the one on the right would heat up, at least), attracting the rest of the bees to move over to it. The system also works in reverse, with the movement of the bees able to influence the movement of the fish. Here’s a slightly better video:

This is a neat experiment, but what’s the point? What can the bees and robots do that they couldn’t do before? There’s a lot of vague potential stuff mentioned in the press release that I’m not sure is even worth getting into, but the overall point of doing all this (from what I can tell) is that bees and fish experience the world in very different ways that could, in some situations, be advantageous. Imagine, for example, a (very, very hypothetical) scenario in which there’s a missing boat that you need to find, and at your disposal you have some fish and some bees, both trained (somehow) to find boats. Fish are better at looking under the water, while bees would be more efficient at searching above the water. If the two groups could communicate, even on a very basic and passive level as in this research, they could nudge each other in different directions depending on where they think is the best place to look.

Perhaps the bees spot something at the surface of the water, and help steer the fish to look under the water at that spot. Or maybe the fish notice some potential wreckage, and by staying near it, they’ll encourage the bees to concentrate their search in that area. Again, this is all hypothetical, but you can see how robot-mediated communication in a biohybrid swarm could leverage the advantages of two different species to make them more effective than either would be alone.

The researchers have some other ideas, too:

This approach may also be generalized to other living species, such as plants, fungi, or even microorganisms, to allow systems to interact even at different scales. It would then be possible, on the one hand, to exploit the unrivaled sensory properties of the living systems, their behaviors and their ease to move in the wild, and, on the other hand, to influence their choices and to add physical properties like telecommunication and other capacities. This approach may also enable the study of information flow in ecosystems and natural phenomena, such as cascade effects or other affects that might be responsible for the collapse of ecosystems, and identify solutions to repair broken links in these ecosystems.

One can also envision future applications in which the robotic systems would be able to learn and to adapt their behavior to animal species. Elsewhere, we have already begun to explore these possibilities in the two individual biohybrid systems based on methodology for continuous real-time adaptation of multilevel behavioral models by evolutionary algorithms. We envision robotic systems that can discover by themselves new properties of biohybrid artificial intelligence toward synthetic transitions and organic computing devices, where robots could passively evolve among animals.

“Robots Mediating Interactions Between Animals for Interspecies Collective Behaviors,” by Frank Bonnet, Rob Mills, Martina Szopek, Sarah Schönwetter-Fuchs, José Halloy, Stjepan Bogdan, Luís Correia, Francesco Mondada, and Thomas Schmickl, from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland; Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal; University of Graz, Austria; Université Paris Diderot, France; and University of Zagreb, Croatia; is published in Science Robotics.

[ ASSISI Project ]

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