This guy right here? This is Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Small, gross, annoying, generally something you want to avoid. So why would I want to get up close and personal with one?
Well, good ol’ D. m. is also a model organism. They’re cheap, easy to care for, reproduce quickly, and genetically simple. Biologists have been studying these guys hardcore for over a century, so they understand them really, really well. Pretty much anything you want to know about a fruit fly, it’s out there somewhere.
That’s especially cool for me as an A.I. researcher. The human brain is – as neuroscientists put it – “really friggin’ complicated.” The fruit fly brain? Not quite so much.
For comparison, a human has about 85 billion neurons in his whole body. Cat, 1 billion. Frog, 16 million. Cockroach, 1 million.
Fruit fly? A measly 100,000 neurons.
Pretty simple, right?
Yet this tiny, almost microscopic brain turns out to be surprisingly sophisticated. Here’s what it looks like, courtesy of the Virtual Fly Brain website (yes, that exists):
You can see it has a definite structure: two optic lobes (connected to the eyes) on the far left and right, two hemispheres in the main body of the brain, smaller structures clearly visible.
What does a fruit fly do with 100,000 neurons?
They can fly, of course, navigating around obstacles and searching for food. They can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch – and make decisions based on all those senses. They’re affected by alcohol in much the same way humans are, and can even become “alcoholic,” seeking more and more of the stuff over time. Remarkably, they can even form long-term memories, learning to seek or avoid arbitrary smells based on laboratory training.
In a nutshell: they’re thinking. They’re not reading Hamlet, they’re not self-aware, and who knows if they have anything like consciousness – but they’re definitely thinking.
With only 100,000 neurons. All of which have been painstakingly studied and analyzed for decades. For someone working on artificial intelligence, that’s pretty flippin’ sweet.
I’ve got some studying to do.