Ants on a Mission
Some of the terms used to define ant behavior mirror those used to discuss human activities. Ants hunt, attack, colonize, invade, enslave, and conquer. While the tiny critters have been carrying out complex missions for millions of years scientists are only beginning to understand how they do it without leaders, maps, battle plans, weapons, or language.
It turns out that ants engage in another activity similar to human design. Their behavior is controlled by algorithms. And a group of ant ecologists at Stanford have labeled this activity (and I’m not making this up) the “Anternet.” The researchers studied several species of ants and found that their foraging behavior is similar to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) used to manage data congestion on the Internet. Invented in the early days of the Web, TCP algorithms break data into small, numbered packets. If there is too much data for the bandwidth available, TCP slows the transmission of the packets. If there is plenty of bandwidth, the packets speed up.
TCP allowed the Internet to scale up to the behemoth it is today. And it turns out ants act the same way when searching for food. If a forager ant finds that food is plentiful, it returns to the nest faster. This is a signal for other ants to leave the nest to forage. If forager ants return empty handed, the search is slowed and possibly called off.
The Anternet algorithm can predict ant behavior based on the amount of food, or “bandwidth,” available. When you think of a single ant colony as a society made up of millions of independent ants acting as individuals with no idea of what the others are doing, the TCP theory makes sense. But ants had been doing it for countless millennia before cave-dwelling humans ever made the scene. According to biology professor Deborah Gordon, who came up with the Anternet theory, “There are 11,000 species of ants, living in every habitat and dealing with every type of ecological problem. Computationally speaking, each ant has limited capabilities, but the collective can perform complex tasks.” Food for thought next time you see hundreds of ants streaming across you kitchen counter.