An exciting new book which explores how our economy 
and ecosystem will be reshaped by artificial intelligence.
Winter of the Genomes explains how humans will fit in.

Winter of the Genomes explores how humans will fit into an evolving ecosystem being reshaped by artificial intelligence. We are entering the age of AI and robots when they could take as many as half the jobs in industrialized countries. On the other hand, robots are also making inroads as lovable companions, and they don’t eat, drink water, or create waste.

If populations decline due to pessimism about the economic future caused in part by robots and automation, as has started to be the case, the corresponding decline in energy demand will contribute to a significant reduction in global warming. Also, robots could be key to improving agricultural production, helping to fend off a major global food crisis.

Eventually, people and robots may be partners, aided by their common connection to the Knowosphere, the ever-growing database and communications network in the clouds.

Photo: iurii/

"Larry Kilham’s Winter of Genomes is an exciting new book that will take you to the last frontier, artificial intelligence. Robots are fast becoming a part of our future life in this decade. Larry Kilham is a Captain Kirk leading us to go where we have not gone before! Fascinating, as Spock would say."

Victoria Wagner Ross, Technology Reviewer San Diego Examiner

"Winter of the Genomes is an intellectually stimulating but sure to be controversial book, in which Larry Kilham creatively and innovatively explores the systemic relationships among critical topics such as the growing use of robots, unemployment, climate change, and global population levels." 

Jeremy A. Sabloff, President, Santa Fe Institute

Visit Larry's new books website. Order book from Amazon.


Crisis of the Bees 


                                                              Chapter 2

A look at the history and future of honeybees in the United States and elsewhere can give us a vivid example of the relationship among species and the possibilities of robots. It is unfortunate indeed that this story presents itself now because we are facing the possibility of catastrophic loss of the bee population. Honeybees, which are of the greatest commercial interest, pollinate about a third of what we eat, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Thirty-one percent of US bee colonies were lost in the winter of 2013 alone. Given its extraordinarily long history, the honeybee species should have developed resistance to practically every pathogen.

There are only seven species of honeybees out of 20,000 known species of bees. Honeybees beginnings trace back to the Cretaceous period about 130 million years ago. Indo-European honeybees survived the world’s continents shifts and temperature changes. Apis mellifera, the honeybee species most common in the US today, began in Europe 2-3 million years ago.e of honeybees in the United States and elsewhere can give us a vivid example of the relationship among species and the possibilities of robots. It is unfortunate indeed that this story presents itself now because we are facing the possibility of catastrophic loss of the bee population to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Honeybees, which are of the greatest commercial interest, pollinate about a third of what we eat, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Thirty-one percent of US bee colonies were lost in the winter of 2013 alone. Given its extraordinarily long history, the honeybee species should have developed resistance to practically every pathogen.

Europeans brought Apis mellifera to the New World in 1622, and, through trade, the honeybees arrived in California in the 1850s. There were, however, 4,000 species of native bees (not honeybees) already in North America, and they still pollinate most of the native plants including pumpkins, watermelons, blueberries and cranberries.

Bee colonies are complex. The central figure is the queen bee, a fertile female. There are up to a thousand fertile male drone bees with which she can mate. Once a drone fertilizes the queen bee, he dies. The rest of the colony is sterile female worker bees. They typically number several tens of thousands.

 The young worker bees carry out the housekeeping in the hive, build the honeycomb, and guard the hive. When they are older, the workers become the bees we are most familiar with, darting from blossom to blossom. Despite all this activity, the worker bees live less than a month while the queen lives 3-7 years.

There is a special worker bee called the scout. She tells the forager bees where the flowers are through choreographed dances in the hive. Through the dance moves, the scouts convey the distance to the food and its angle to the sun. The worker bee can visit 10 flowers a minute and may visit more than 600 flowers in one excursion.


For many years all was well and with steady improvements for the beekeepers’ procedures and equipment, the number of honeybees kept increasing. There were bothersome parasites and diseases like Nosema Ceranae, mites, hive beetles, and American foul brood, but these seemed manageable. Then around 2006, what is now a disaster began. Called colony-collapse disorder (CCD), this scourge wiped out 10 million beehives, valued at $2 billion, through 2013. Experts estimate that up to half of the $30 billion worth of crops in the US pollinated by honeybees could be lost. For six years scientists could not isolate a definite mechanism for CCD. There were many dead ends and incomplete explanations.

Then in 2013 scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture published in the journal PLOS ONE their list of pesticides and fungicides contaminating the pollen collected by the honeybees. They found eight chemicals which reduced the bees’ resistance to infection by Nosema ceranae.  Bees that consumed pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times as likely to be infected by the parasite. The bees had been thought not to be affected by the fungicides.

The major culprit seems to be a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, although mixtures of pesticides can do great harm. Europe has banned the use of neonicotinoids for several years, and in 2013 the US EPA required their labels to prohibit their use where bees are foraging or plants are flowering. These restrictions will help wild bees as well as the honeybees. Wild bees are very important for pollination for both commercial crops and general flowering plants.

While these are positive steps, the Chinese are going one step further. In the southwest part of the country, where bees have almost been wiped out, farmers are hand pollinating apple and pear trees with pots of pollen and brushes. This is not a cost-effective solution for higher labor cost countries with smaller populations and may not be for China either.  


And then, as the sun sets, it’s the cavalry of the robots to the rescue of the flowering plants. Although they are not yet deployed into the waiting blossoms, they already have a name: robobees.

The current leader in robobees technology is a team at Harvard University. In May, 2013, their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences announced that an experimental prototype of the robobee made its first controlled flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it powered upward, hovered on its delicate flapping wings, and flew off.

Writing in the Scientific American, the team leaders said, “In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual’s behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”

A major engineering breakthrough was finding a way to power the high speed flapping of the 3 cm wings. The solution was piezoelectric effect actuators. Electric fields applied to tiny ceramic strips cause them to flap the bee’s wings at 120 times per second.

The next challenge for the Harvard team is to develop a suitable internal source of bee power. There are a number of approaches to consider including an internal energy source such as a battery or a renewable source such as a photovoltaic cell on an attached plane.

Also to be developed is a way to cause a number of robobees to swarm and accomplished a coordinated task. Thousands of bees in one field will be required to pollinate several acres of crops.


This brings us to the question of brains for the bees. Judged by our own intellectual standards, the artificial honeybee would need a brain at least as large as a personal computer. After all, a worker bee—the bee we are modeling—would need to know how to do housekeeping the hive, defend it against attackers, seek out sources of pollen, gather the pollen, return to the hive, and tell the other bees where the pollen source is. Along the way it would have to recognize the good bees from the bad bees and identify other insects and threats.

Marc Bekoff has written that bees know how to travel most efficiently between sites; they can distinguish complex landscape scenes including types of flowers; they consider social conditions, times of day and various sensory inputs; and they show memory ranging from days to entire life spans.

Melissa Bateson at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom has shown that when honeybees are stressed, they become pessimists. This behavior correlates with altered levels of dopamine, serotonin, and octopamine which are involved with depression. In plain language, bees have at least some emotion—an unlikely attribute for a tiny brain.

We tend to try to solve such challenges by comprehensive models and massive number crunching. Nature prefers the simplest design. Consider that we have 100 billion neurons in our brain while the honeybee has only a million—we have 100,000 times more!

Nevertheless, the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom has begun a project to model the honeybee’s brain so that a version of the model can be loaded into a robobee. The project is called Green Brain. They will use massively paralleled PCs, or supercomputer clusters, to simulate and model the bee brain. In order to develop a simple and doable model for robobees, the Sheffield researchers are concentrating on the bee brain’s vision and smell reception.

In addition to providing bee brains for the Harvard RoboBees project, the University of Sheffield team hopes to develop brains for many species of robots which could substitute for many critically endangered or extinct species. It does not seem that this class of robots with their limited brains will pose a threat of overcoming humanity.


Although we can’t be certain about how the honeybee colony collapse disorder will play out, we can be sure that it is at the very least a harbinger of catastrophes to come for any number of species including mankind. These catastrophes could combine to what Thomas Lovejoy writing in the Scientific American calls a “Tsunami of Extinction.”

First there are the apparently inevitable changes happening as a result of climate change and the huge loss of forests and coral reefs. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 13 percent of bird, 25 percent of mammals and 41 percent of amphibian species may become extinct. These species losses cannot be replaced by evolution in the projectable future.

All grand-scale technological fixes seem utopian or to create new problems. These include the geoengineering proposal of creating a stratospheric layer of sulfate aerosols to effectively cover the earth with a thin cloud to halt global warming. The mechanism would be similar to the blocking of sunlight by the dispersed ash of mega volcanoes.  Starting the process is relatively easy. Small amounts of easily synthesized chemicals would be required, and they could be injected into the stratosphere by conventional military aircraft. Then the problems begin, including the high probability of monsoons greatly reduced in Asia and Africa, further erosion of the ozone layer, and increased already catastrophic ocean acidification from the addition of acid rain. The atmospheric chemistry could change in many ways.

Of course an old-fashioned pandemic could set off the human CCD (Civilization Collapse Disaster). The Black Death of the middle ages is estimated to have killed 75 million people. The “Spanish flu” of 1918-1919 killed 50 million people worldwide. A similar flu, “bird flu,” active among flocks in several countries, while not yet transmissible between humans, could become a pandemic threat in just a few mutations.  If a pandemic like the flu occurs, it may be possible to use specially-built robots to help quell the pending disaster. Millions of these robots could tirelessly prepare vaccine doses and administer them to large populations of people.

This approach will not work against AIDS which is a very real pandemic right now. Infection rates are as high as 25% in some African countries. The United Nations estimates 1.6 million people died of it in 2012.


Whether we are discussing the welfare of flora, fauna, or human beings, we must realize that we are about to pass through what E.O. Wilson calls “a bottleneck unique in history.” When we come out the other side in 50 or 100 years we should still have a diverse ecosystem with which we can live compatibly. He advises that key elements of a successful passage will be halting population growth and devising a wiser use of resources.

Other experts advise that the world’s population must be reduced drastically and that people use much less resources. Currently, the world population is over seven billion. Within the lifetime of some people today, the world population has tripled. What is the maximum population that the world can carry on a sustainable basis? There are a range of current estimates by population specialists, but a range of one to four billion includes many of them. This assumes living at reasonably modern standards.

Of course we will hope that after all this chaos, the honeybee will still be with us. They could be delightful associates in the scaled-down post-bottleneck ecosystem.

(c) Lawrence B. Kilham 2013