[Sponsored] Wits finds dung beetles inform artificial intelligence

Have you ever wondered why dung beetles don’t get lost, even when they navigate vast expanses backwards?

Wits finds dung beetles inform AI

Dung beetles use different directional sensors to achieve the highest possible navigational precision in different conditions. This discovery by Wits University and an international team of Swedish biologists from Lund University has ground-breaking impact for artificial intelligence (AI), Robotics and Machine Learning.

Have you ever wondered why dung beetles don’t get lost, even when they navigate vast expanses backwards?

A research team led by Marie Dacke, professor of Sensory Biology at Lund University and renowned biology researcher and Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits asked and answered this question. Their discovery of the dung beetles’ wind compass and how it complements the sun compass, rolls on some fundamental lessons for better data prioritisation and navigation.

The beetles have a fall-back system of compass cues that they can switch between, dependent on which one is providing the most reliable information for orientation, says Professor Byrne, who has collaborated with Dacke for almost 20 years on dung beetle orientation.

This is the first study that shows how an animal’s biological compass can integrate different directional sensors, in this case wind and sun, in a flexible way. This enables the highest possible precision at all times.

Marie Dacke, Professor of Sensory Biology at Lund University

When it is cloudy, or when the sun is higher than 75 degrees above the horizon in the middle of the day, dung beetles are unable to use the sun as a directional guide. A couple of hours later, when the sun is a little lower, they tum off the wind compass and again rely on the sun to navigate.

The aim of the research is to understand how very small brains handle large amounts of information to make a relevant decision: is it appropriate to turn left or right, or continue straight on?

Dacke believes that the results will be of direct benefit within a few years, in areas like robot development and artificial intelligence (Al). Just like dung beetles, robots must take large amounts of information into consideration in order to direct their next action.

Choosing the most important job at any given moment is a task most computers struggle with, which we all know about from the frustration of attempting to send an email while our machine checks its virus protection.

Professor Marcus Byrne, Wits Biology Researcher

The researchers had previously shown that, during the night, some dung beetles orientate by the Milky Way and polarised moonlight while rolIing their dung balls in a straight line. Combined with the results from the Milky Way study, they show that the insects' compass works at all times of the day or night and probably under almost any conditions.

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