Brainy bees and self-conscious ants—and their role in the rise of the machines

To bee or not to bee. That is the question that some invertebrates could be asking themselves on a regular basis, if two Australian academics are correct in their hypothesis that insects such as ants and honeybees have some level of self awareness, instead of merely being dumb drones that operate on a robotically simplistic level.

Most scientists would have dismissed such a notion out of hand until fairly recently, but modern advances in neuroscience and an increased biological understanding of what goes on inside insects’ heads has led Colin Klein, a senior lecturer in philosophy, and Dr Andrew Barron, associate professor—both from Macquarie University—to put their case for self-conscious creepy crawlies forward in The Conversation.

Inevitably, given their body size, even the biggest insect’s brain is still smaller than a grain of rice. However, tiny though they are, these organs have recently been proven capable of performing functions similar to the calculations that go on in a human’s midbrain. The midbrain is an ancient area of the mind (in terms of evolution), which effectively collates a range of available data and then enables us to make an informed decision about which direction to move in.

Self awareness is the essence of bee-ing
Self awareness is, perhaps, the essence of bee-ing

Bees are undoubtedly capable of advanced navigation and also apparently analyse multiple factors before deciding which way to buzz off (whereas animals such as parasitical worms, whose modus operandi means they have forfeited their ability to move independently, have lost their midbrain function), but Barron and Klein are asking whether also possess ‘phenomenal consciousness’—the ability to feel and sense their environment from a first-person perspective.

While the neocortex in the human brain has evolved to a level of incredible complexity, the good old midbrain provides us with the most fundamental form of consciousness. In fact, according to Neuroscientist Björn Merker, it’s solely responsible for us being self aware. And the fact that supposedly simplistic creatures such as bees and ants possess the same internal technology to enable this process of computation not only reveals important clues about how our own consciousness developed but also begs a big question: are all animals great and small also self aware?

We’re more likely to accept and project such capabilities onto larger mammals, such as dogs and monkeys—and even, in the case of philosopher Thomas Nagel, bats—but generally find it hard to believe that bugs can be possessed with such sophistication.

But Barron and Klein are inclined to think that we’ve been underestimating the little creatures, and they’re all sorts of excited about the implications for furthering our understanding of what goes on between humans’ ears.

‘If this argument is correct, studying insects is a powerful way to study basic forms of consciousness,’ they write. ‘The honeybee brain has less than a million neurons, which is roughly five orders of magnitude fewer than a human. That is a lot easier to study. Completely mapping the insect nervous system is within the realm of current technology. Several labs are already working on it.’

Machines that think and act like animals are already in development. Let's hope they play nice…
Machines that think and act like animals are already in development. Let’s hope they play nice…

Sentience and self awareness is a key issue in many debates about animal rights, and it’s also the holy grail in the race to create of artificial intelligence. As Barron and Klein acknowledge, initiatives like The Green Brain Project are already using existing knowledge to design a biologically-inspired drone that ‘thinks, senses, and acts’ like a honeybee in complex environments.

Question is, should we see this as good news, or is the rise of the machines already on the horizon…?