Lessons From the Anternet: What Ants and Computers Have in Common
In his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, the great myrmecologist and evolutionary theorist Edward O. Wilson comments at several points on animals with especially complex social behavior. Leading that parade: human beings. A close second: leafcutter ants. It might seem odd that tiny ants, with their necessarily tiny brains, could rival humans in the sophistication of their social order, but it turns out, the science of emergent behavior has shown, that the consistent following of very simple rules can produce exceptionally complicated actions—rather like computers do. Or, to be more precise, exactly as computers do.
Consider this report from Stanford University:
On the surface, ants and the Internet don’t seem to have much in common. But two Stanford researchers have discovered that a species of harvester ants determine how many foragers to send out of the nest in much the same way that Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for the transfer of data. The researchers are calling it the “anternet.”
Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, has been studying ants for more than 20 years. When she figured out how the harvester ant colonies she had been observing in Arizona decided when to send out more ants to get food, she called across campus to Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of computer science at Stanford and an expert on how files are transferred on a computer network. At first he didn’t see any overlap between his and Gordon’s work, but inspiration would soon strike.
“The next day it occurred to me, ‘Oh wait, this is almost the same as how [Internet] protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!’” Prabhakar said. “The algorithm the ants were using to discover how much food there is available is essentially the same as that used in the Transmission Control Protocol.”