Ant group dynamics

July 20, 2001 | Source: Nature Science Update

Emergent group intelligence from simple interactions between ants suggests ways for robots and computer programs to solve complex problems.

Many individuals following a few simple rules result in complex and powerful behaviour. “You don’t need a complex set of rules for patterns to emerge,” says Jennifer Fewell, who studies ants at Arizona State University in Tempe. Brains, embryonic development and ecosystems show similar complex ‘emergent’ properties from simple interactions, says Fewell.

Such patterns may be an inevitable result of the interactions, rather than being favoured by natural selection, she says – studying them requires a different way of thinking. “We’ve looked at things from the perspective of evolution, rather than how the pattern gets there in the first place,” says Fewell.

The idea that lots of little brains can solve problems better than a big one has captured the imagination of computer scientists. “There’s an entire field developing based on ant algorithms,” says Pratt. This tackles complex problems such as designing distribution networks.

Robotics engineers also foresee that groups of many simple machines could be adaptable and robust, as each individual is expendable.