AUG 15, 2018 6:10 AM PDT

# Bees Know What Zero Means

There is much concern over the dwindling population of honey bees. They are needed for pollination and for ecosystems to stay in balance, but soon researchers could use their understanding of how the bee brain works to investigate artificial intelligence (AI) and engineer better computers.

It all starts with the concept of zero. While it might seem simple, understanding that zero is equal to nothing is something not every species can do. Some monkeys understand it, as well as certain species of birds, but bees? They have brains with less than 1 million neurons, which, while it sounds like a lot, is not very much. The human mind, in comparison, contains 86 million neurons and it took humans centuries to understand the math behind the concept of zero.

Size didn't seem to matter, however, to these bees. Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne Australia set out to see if an insect, such as the honey bee, could comprehend a mathematical concept of nothing. Scientists already know that bees can remember places in their environment, and how to navigate back to the best spots for flowers and pollen. What they wanted to understand is if the bees could understand quantity. Could bees distinguish an object as being more or less than another object and how did that understanding work when it came to an object that contained nothing?

Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia led the research and explained what his team hoped to gain from the study, saying, "Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily -- it takes children a few years to learn. We've long believed only humans had the intelligence to get the concept, but recent research has shown monkeys and birds have the brains for it as well. What we haven't known -- until now -- is whether insects can also understand zero."

Using objects that contained a specific number of elements, the researchers were able to train the bees to understand that four is more than three and two is more than one. By putting a sugary food on objects, the team was able to see that the bees knew that more elements meant a better outcome. The addition of an "empty set" is what led to the most significant part of the research. Despite not having any experience with an object that had zero elements on it, the bees knew that an empty object was less than an object with one, two, three, or four items on it.

The team hopes to use the research for AI applications. In a complex environment, with lots of stimuli, the concept of nothing is important. The team at RMIT likened it to teaching a robot to cross the street safely. Humans know when no cars are coming, it's safe to proceed. Robots need to be educated, via AI, that seeing nothing happening is a piece of information they can use. Dr. Dyer explained, "If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple, efficient ways to teach AI new tricks." Check out the video below for more information on what the bees know and how it could help engineer new AI projects.

• I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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