Ants and algorithms: Researchers discover "the anternet"

Ant expert Mark Moffett says individual ants are stupid, but together their colonies thrive. "Basically, all those little ants with their mostly ignorant choices, out of all that emerges a smart society." CBS

(CBS News) New research has found that ants and algorithms have more in common than you might think. A study from Stanford University showed that a species of harvester ant transmits information in much the same way as data moves on the Internet. This real-world application of what was once thought to be a purely human invention has been dubbed the "anternet."

In an example of cross-discipline research yielding unanticipated results, Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon teamed up with a professor of computer science, Balaji Prabhakar, in her study of harvester ants. Gordon was investigating how harvester ant communities determine how many ants to send to a particular food source. When she noticed a certain pattern, she called in Prabhakar, who was initially skeptical about a link between ants and information transfers.

"The next day if 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 in a Stanford news release. "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."

Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages online data transfer. Information is transmitted between sources in chunks, or packets, with the receiver sending an acknowledgement every time a packet is received. The speed of an acknowledgement will inform the source on how quickly, or slowly, to send additional information. The protocol is an essential process in control data transfers and managing bandwidth across the Internet.

Gordon and Prabhakar soon realized that harvester ants were using this exact system when searching for food. If ants are returning to their nests quickly with food - a form of acknowledgement that there is food around - the hive will send out more ants accordingly.

"Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they've been doing it for millions of years," Prabhakar said.

Gordon believes that their research could lead to way to a better understanding of ant colony behavior, and possibly even point the way towards better designs of system networks.

"So ant algorithms have to be simple, distributed and scalable - the very qualities that we need in large engineered sitributed systems," she said. "I think as we start understanding more about how species of ants regulate their behavior, we'll find many more useful applications for network algorithms."

  • Bailey Johnson

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