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How often do you think about ants? For sure you have seen them outside at the park, playground or school and probably inside too - maybe you have been lucky / unlucky enough to have them trooping through your living room. But how much time have you spent considering these little fellows?
There are somewhere in the order of 1 million billion of them worldwide; they have been on Earth far longer than we have; and they are great team players. They live in colonies and within a colony, they have roles and responsibilities each serving the community in a slightly different way.
Foraging ants head off in their own direction in search of food, leaving behind them a chemical trail of 'pheromones' - think of it like an invisible ant breadcrumb. Upon finding food or reaching a dead end, they return along the same path, marking it as either successful or unsuccessful. As more ants follow, they do the same. With more 'successful' trails added, the trail strength grows and more ants are drawn to follow it. Shorter paths to the same destination will have more ants in the same time and hence have a stronger trail. When the food runs out, the 'unsuccessful' marker diminishes the draw.
This super simple system enables ants credited with really minimal individual intelligence to work together to solve complex problems. They can select shorter / safer paths. They can select 'better' food sources. And they can adapt to changing circumstances.
Bees have a similar approach to decentralised problem solving. They perform dances, pleasingly referred to as 'waggle dances' where the shape tells other bees the distance and direction to the food source! The more enthusiastically they dance, the more satisfied they are with their find. Other bees can then observe multiple dancing friends and make a decision on which to follow before adding their own views to the mix upon return. Like a herd sat nav!
Ants and bees have evolved in this way. And scientists have been fascinated by the topic since major breakthroughs in the early 1800s! Fast forward a couple of hundred years. The computer / phone / tablet you are reading this very article on is connected to the internet. A sprawling mass of interconnected devices looking to send messages to one another. The protocols for how to send messages across that network are not so dissimilar to that of the ant. Information is sent along routes from sender to receiver and successful paths recognised with the return of an acknowledgement. The more fruitful a path, the more is sent and vice versa. Good routes, once identified are similarly memorised by the chain with each device in the chain only caring about passing information to its immediate neighbours. It really is just like the ant. Simple individual devices able to achieve wonderful things through collaboration. And all built on protocols in some sense borrowed from one of Earth's most overlooked creatures.
So next time you see an ant or a bee, take a look. See if you can spot what they are doing. Who knows, maybe they give you an idea to change the world!
If such simple creatures can achieve such amazing things by collaborating, what else can we do as humans? How we can we work together to be more than the sum of our parts? How is this model different to having one 'leader' and lots of followers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches?
Why when the ants have found a food source do they not simply all relocate to the food source as opposed to trooping back and forth? Likewise, why do they continue to send ants in search of new food sources? This in some sense is the colony keeping an eye on the future. How do you plan your activities to achieve what you want today and balance that with what you want to be? For example, you may not enjoy learning a subject at school but know you need to understand it.
In some species, hunting / foraging is a competitive activity and creatures will actively seek to hide their finds. In contrast ants actively advertise it. The reason for this is that collaboration is mutually beneficial. More food for the colony creates a safer environment. What competitive scenarios do you find yourself in? Sometimes learning at school can feel like this. In such scenarios what are the opportunities to collaborate? Sometimes the best way to learn is to teach someone else.
Read the next blog in the series here.