Hubris is a word that best describes how we assess our intelligence and the technological advances we have made as a species, but a quote like this perhaps can inject some humility in all that hot air.
“Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they've been doing it for millions of years," said, Balaji Prabhakar, professor of computer science at Stanford and an expert on how files are transferred on a computer network.
The discovery of how ants make the decision to send more ants to forage for food was made by Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford who has been studying ants for over two decades. By consulting with Prabhakar, they agreed on the similarities to TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), which manages congestions in a network, and they called it the “anternet”; a sense of humor goes a long way when you are researching ants and network communications.
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The species that exhibits this behavior is the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) and with over 11,000 varieties of ants there is no telling how much more humble we will have to be. These ants forage for food individually and the rate at which they go out depends on how much food is available. Generally, the ant will not return until it finds some food and if there is a large amount of food it will return faster and more ants will be dispatched. If on the other hand the individual ants start returning without any food the search will be called off or slowed down.
TCP manages data congestion on the Internet by transferring data to a destination by breaking them into packets. The speed of the transfer is based on how quickly or slowly that packet is received. The process monitors itself to determine the bandwidth and regulates the transmission of the data.
An algorithm, written by Prabhakar, was designed to predict the foraging behavior on the amount of food, or in other words bandwidth, available for the ants. By manipulating the rate of forager returns Gordon and Stanford student Katie Dektar noticed the ant behavior matched the TCP influenced algorithm almost exactly.
The ants also followed a slow start phase and time-out protocol, two phases of TCP in which the bandwidth is gauged by sending large amounts of packets to determine availability and it is timed out or stopped if the source stops sending packets. Similarly, the ants send more ants to determine availability and scale down if there is no food, and if the ants don’t return in a certain amount of time the ants will not leave the nest.
Granted ants are not transferring billion bits of data, but the mechanism they use to adjust accordingly is very interesting, and as you wait for your video to stream on your smartphone while you are in the park and you happen to see an ant carrying some food, acknowledge the efficiency of this biological wonder and chuckle at your service provider.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman