May 28, 2014
Data Processing Skills Of Ants Rival Those Of Google, Claims New Study
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Classic literature has touted the work ethic of ants and scientists have determined that they have the largest brains of any insect. Now, researchers have also discovered that the creatures' group processing skills when it comes to foraging for food would put the most complex online search engines to shame.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of German and Chinese scientists explain that the collective foraging behaviors of ants exceed their individual problem-solving strategies. A hungry ant appears to travel along random paths, they explain, but things change once they actually find something to eat.
“Ants have a nest so they need something like a strategy to bring home the food they find,” lead author Lixiang Li of the Information Security Center, State Key Laboratory of Networking and Switching Technology, at the Beijing University of Posts and Communications, as well as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a statement. “We argue that this is a factor, largely underestimated so far, that actually determines their behavior.”
According to Time’s Bryan Walsh, when ants begin their search for sustenance, hundreds of them set out in all directions in a scene that “can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys.” However, once one of them discovers a food source, it takes a morsel back to the nest, leaving behind a pheromone trail that will make it possible for the rest of the population to make their way to that food source – but only for a limited time, since pheromones tend to evaporate quickly.
If the trail disappears, then the ants will once again exhibit chaotic behavior as they attempt to bring the food back to the nest, he added. However, as time passes, the ants will begin to organize their search. They will optimize the best and the shortest path between the nest and the food source. As more ants follow that ideal path, they leave behind additional pheromones – which attract additional ants, making the food collection process more organized.
Ultimately, the entire process goes from near-total chaos to a “self-reinforcing effect of efficiency,” study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told Jamie Merrill of The Independent. “While single ants can appear chaotic and random-like, they very quickly become an ordered line of ants crossing the woodland floor in the search for food.”
“That transition between chaos and order is an important mechanism and I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings,” he added.
Previous research has suggested that older worker ants were tasked with the more dangerous food collection tasks because colonies were hesitant to risk younger, more productive members of society. However, the new paper suggests that the actual reason is that older ants are chosen for the task because they have a greater knowledge of the nest’s surroundings, explained Merrill.
Professor Kurths told The Independent that the mathematical model used by the research team to convert patterns of ant behavior into equations and algorithms could be applied to other animals with similar homing instincts. Furthermore, it could even help scientists change their perspective on human behavioral patterns when it comes to things such as how men and women use transportation systems and/or the Internet.
“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I'm tempted to call intelligent. The principle of self-organization is known from for instance fish swarms, but it is the homing which makes the ants so interesting,” said Kurths. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network, and this is something we find in many natural and social systems.”