An analysis of how ants quickly find new routes in a changing maze reveals techniques that could be useful to systems engineers.
The research, reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology, shows that Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), do not just retrace their steps when presented with a barrier—as might be expected. Instead, the ants begin a localized search that seems to take into account the direction in which they were planning to go. Because there are many network-management programs that mimic the search behaviour of this ant species, systems engineers are taking notice and wondering what they can learn.
Systems engineers learning from ants?
Many computerized systems, such as those that route telephone calls through busy networks while minimizing connection times, already solve shortest path problems by deploying virtual ants. These ants explore all possible routes in a system and deposit virtual pheromones on each route they travel.
Yet such systems are not perfect. When virtual ants are blocked from following a well-travelled path, they must turn around and are likely to follow the path that they have just travelled because it usually has the strongest concentration of pheromones of any nearby paths.
“I figured Argentine ants had to have some way of dealing with obstacles that didn’t involve starting a search from scratch” says Chris Reid, a behavioural biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, the lead author of the study.
To put the insects to the test, Reid and his colleagues presented them with a logic puzzle known as the Towers of Hanoi.
So the researchers constructed a maze with 2^15 (that is, 32,768) different paths for the ants to negotiate.
“The discovery that these ants can solve the Towers or Hanoi is far from trivial,” says Simon Robson, a biologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. … “When I heard that these ants started exploring nearby routes rather than turning around, I just thought, this is dead cool,” says David Broomhead, director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Computational and Dynamical Analysis at the University of Manchester, UK. … The discovery indicates that Argentine ants use more than just the simple trail pheromone to find their way. “The individual ants appear to have internal compasses and odometers that allow them to guide their search,” says Reid. Broomhead adds that “it would be really interesting to see if we can get a computer to do what these ants are doing.”
Internal compasses and odometers which just happened to arise on their own? As usual, evolution is called upon to perform unlikely heroics. Evolutionary expectations are dashed as ants are smarter than engineers, and the theory must do yet more gymnastics to accommodate the facts. But just because evolutionists have no idea how such marvels could just happen to arise does not mean they will stop insisting evolution is an undeniable fact.