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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
BT ponders bacterial intelligence
Petri dish BBC
Bacteria have important lessons for the ways systems network
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

BT is hoping the living habits of bacteria will bring order to future communication networks.

Researchers working for the company are studying bacterial colonies to help develop communication networks that will self-organise and self-configure.

They believe that soon many people will be carrying around or using so many small, smart devices that they will not have the time to do their own configuration.

Self-organising systems will then be essential to keep networks running.

Simulations of the bacteria-based system have already shown that it can keep a network of a few thousand devices running.

Device proliferation

Typically, every time you buy a new phone or laptop you have to spend a lot of time configuring it to work with other devices you own or the communication networks that you are hooked into.

But many people believe that soon we will use so many that we will not have the time or inclination to get them working or talking to every other device we own.

"Fairly shortly there's going to be a very large number of low power computational devices with communications abilities, most of which will be connected together into communications networks," said Ian Marshall, a researcher at BT Exact based at the company's research centre at Adastral Park in Suffolk, UK.

These small, smart devices could include smart tags on consumables, location devices carried around by children or worn by pets, environment sensors in homes, smart fridges and video recorders, said Mr Marshall.

"We're looking at how we can encourage communities of small-scale computational devices to work together in a self-organising way and as a system achieve useful properties in an organic fashion rather than get the user to do a lot of work that he does not understand how to do," he said.

Stromatolite example

Mr Marshall and his colleagues have turned to bacterial colonies called stromatolites for ways to automatically manage large populations of individual entities.

Bacteria in stromatolites self-organise and manage to create a large working community even though no single bacterium is in charge.

This organisation also tends to stay robust or recover quickly in the face of damage or environmental change.

Also useful is the fact that bacteria in stromatolites take on different roles depending on where they find themselves in the colony, and they all share genetic information across species - properties that could be useful for future communication networks.

By assigning different priorities to data packets passed around a simulated network of 3000 devices, Mr Marshall has managed to make the communications system self-organise.

Setting priorities

Information passed around by the network dealt with management, configuration, billing and messaging - all key elements of keeping a communications network running.

High-priority packets of information, such as people sending messages to each other, were dealt with by the devices with the best links to wider networks.

Other low-level tasks such as logging what people do so bills can be generated are looked after by the devices that rely heavily on others to keep in touch.

"This type of self-organisation can deliver significant benefits for the kinds of networks that we are interested in," said Mr Marshall, who speculated that these techniques could be in use within five to six years.

See also:

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