How Snails Could Make Robots Smarter

Snail
Researchers say the decision-making process of snails could be used in the development of "robot brains." Wikimedia Commons

With only two brain cells to rub together when making decisions, it would be fair to say that snails are not that smart. Nevertheless, their simple decision-making process—recently discovered by scientists—could be used to design more efficient robot “brains.”

Researchers from the University of Sussex found that complex decisions made by snails were achieved using just two cells; one that tells the snail whether it is hungry or not and the other lets it know if food is present.

“A very small number of brain cells can play a key role in complex decision making processes and even in the optimization of the energy use of the nervous system,” lead researcher George Kemenes tells Newsweek . “In other words, you don’t need a large and complicated brain to make complex decisions in the most economical way.”

The study outlined how the behavior of snails was monitored using electrodes that measured small electrical changes in individual neurons.

Kevin Staras, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Sussex and one of the study’s co-authors, says that the research will also offer clues to mechanisms that might be used by the more complex brains of larger animals.

By understanding the decision-making process at this fundamental level and by unravelling the links between the activity of individual brain cells and behavior, the researchers believe it could be key to developing certain types of artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

“In terms of future research into the development of robotic systems, our research demonstrates that a parsimonious design (one that uses the fewest possible components) can work very well even for the execution of complex tasks,” Kemenes says.

“We also think that different types of ‘internal states’ akin to motivational states in animals could also be programmed into robotic ‘brains’ to make their behavior more adaptive.”

The study is published in Nature Communications.