Ever notice how ant colonies so successfully explore and exploit resources in the world … to find food at 4th of July picnics, for example? You may find it annoying. But as an ecologist who studies ants and collective behavior, I think it’s intriguing — especially the fact that it’s all done without any central control.
What’s especially remarkable: the close parallels between ant colonies’ networks and human-engineered ones. One example is “Anternet”, where we, a group of researchers at Stanford, found that the algorithm desert ants use to regulate foraging is like the Traffic Control Protocol (TCP) [updated with correct spelling] used to regulate data traffic on the internet. Both ant and human networks use positive feedback: either from acknowledgements that trigger the transmission of the next data packet, or from food-laden returning foragers that trigger the exit of another outgoing forager.
This research led some to marvel at the ingenuity of ants, able to invent systems familiar to us: wow, ants have been using internet algorithms for millions of years! (Wired, too, flirted with the concept of “anternet” in its Jargon Watch column last year.)
But insect behavior mimicking human networks — another example are the ant-like solutions to the traveling salesman problem provided by the ant colony optimization algorithm — is actually not what’s most interesting about ant networks. What’s far more interesting are the parallels in the other direction: What have the ants worked out that we humans haven’t thought of yet?