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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Genius Of Swarm

A single ant or bee isn't smart, but their colonies are. The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems, from truck routing to military robots.


I used to think ants knew what they were doing. The ones marching across my kitchen counter looked so confident, I just figured they had a plan, knew where they were going and what needed to be done. How else could ants organize highways, build elaborate nests, stage epic raids, and do all the other things ants do?

Turns out I was wrong. Ants aren't clever little engineers, architects, or warriors after all—at least not as individuals. When it comes to deciding what to do next, most ants don't have a clue. "If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you'll be impressed by how inept it is," says Deborah M. Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University.

How do we explain, then, the success of Earth's 12,000 or so known ant species? They must have learned something in 140 million years.

"Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are." A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.

Where this intelligence comes from raises a fundamental question in nature: How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group's success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Consider the problem of job allocation. In the Arizona desert where Deborah Gordon studies red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), a colony calculates each morning how many workers to send out foraging for food. The number can change, depending on conditions. Have foragers recently discovered a bonanza of tasty seeds? More ants may be needed to haul the bounty home. Was the nest damaged by a storm last night? Additional maintenance workers may be held back to make repairs. An ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next. But how does a colony make such adjustments if no one's in charge? Gordon has a theory.

Ants communicate by touch and smell. When one ant bumps into another, it sniffs with its antennae to find out if the other belongs to the same nest and where it has been working. (Ants that work outside the nest smell different from those that stay inside.) Before they leave the nest each day, foragers normally wait for early morning patrollers to return. As patrollers enter the nest, they touch antennae briefly with foragers.

"When a forager has contact with a patroller, it's a stimulus for the forager to go out," Gordon says. "But the forager needs several contacts no more than ten seconds apart before it will go out."

To see how this works, Gordon and her collaborator Michael Greene of the University of Colorado at Denver captured patroller ants as they left a nest one morning. After waiting half an hour, they simulated the ants' return by dropping glass beads into the nest entrance at regular intervals—some coated with patroller scent, some with maintenance worker scent, some with no scent. Only the beads coated with patroller scent stimulated foragers to leave the nest. Their conclusion: Foragers use the rate of their encounters with patrollers to tell if it's safe to go out. (If you bump into patrollers at the right rate, it's time to go foraging. If not, better wait. It might be too windy, or there might be a hungry lizard waiting out there.) Once the ants start foraging and bringing back food, other ants join the effort, depending on the rate at which they encounter returning foragers.

"A forager won't come back until it finds something," Gordon says. "The less food there is, the longer it takes the forager to find it and get back. The more food there is, the faster it comes back. So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is."

That's how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. (Temnothorax albipennis, for example, can rate the quality of a potential nest site using multiple criteria.) But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. "Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions," he says.

Inspired by the elegance of this idea, Marco Dorigo, a computer scientist at the Université Libre in Brussels, used his knowledge of ant behavior in 1991 to create mathematical procedures for solving particularly complex human problems, such as routing trucks, scheduling airlines, or guiding military robots.

In Houston, for example, a company named American Air Liquide has been using an ant-based strategy to manage a complex business problem. The company produces industrial and medical gases, mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, at about a hundred locations in the United States and delivers them to 6,000 sites, using pipelines, railcars, and 400 trucks. Deregulated power markets in some regions (the price of electricity changes every 15 minutes in parts of Texas) add yet another layer of complexity.
More at:http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0707/feature5/index.html

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