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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March 2005, 09:46 GMT
Ants - learning from the collective
By Peter Everett

Fire  ants on a plank (USDA/Bauer)
It's them! The ants are on the march
"Go to the ant, thou sluggard," King Solomon advised in the Book of Proverbs Chapter Six, "consider her ways and be wise".

Humans have always looked at the little beasts - so efficient, so purposeful and yet so different from us - and puzzled over what they have to tell us.

The cultural historian Charlotte Sleigh, author of Ant (Reaktion Books 2003) says that in every age we have re-interpreted the mysteries of the ant colony to suit our own ideas.

"The Victorians were very impressed with the ants, and they were keen to learn from the ants and behave more like them," she wrote.

"They particularly liked the fact that the ants worked so very hard, and also the fact that they helped one another; they exercised what the Victorians called 'mutual aid'."

When our present technology-driven society considers the ant, the aim is not to find moral guidance or to admire a perfect political system, but to gather clues that will help us to solve technical problems
Having told us to consider the ant, Solomon points out that the ant "having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest".

This is the perfect model for society as seen by the 18th Century philosopher Adam Smith (a big influence on the monetarist economics of "Thatcherism").

The decentralised organisation of the ant-hill suits his idea that the economy needs no government intervention because the market is self-regulating.

It is also a blueprint for the ideal communist society as envisaged by Marx.

The association of ants and the "communist menace" was seized on by Hollywood at the height of the Cold War.

Sleigh particularly likes "a wonderful - no terrible - B-movie called Empire Of The Ants in which Joan Collins, as an estate agent, gets it from giant ants - three perfect ingredients as far as I'm concerned."

The question that continues to fascinate myrmecologists (ant experts) is how ants manage to achieve such complicated results - elaborate nests, efficient food-supply, waste-disposal and so on - without having anyone in charge.

Small but not so dumb

When our present technology-driven society considers the ant, the aim is not to find moral guidance or to admire a perfect political system, but to gather clues that will help us to solve technical problems.

In the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Laboratory at the University of the West of England, Dr Chris Melhuish presides over a fleet of "U-bots".

A U-bot is a foot-high robot which glides around an arena on castors, carrying a U-shaped scoop in front of it. It is a very stupid robot, because it carries only three instructions:

  • If nothing is happening, keep moving.
  • If you hit a large obstacle, take a turn and keep moving.
  • If you've got a little something in your scoop, and you hit another little something, drop what you've got, take a turn and keep moving.
Following only those instructions, Dr Melhuish's robots, given enough time, can gather together a randomly distributed collection of frisbees and assemble them in a pile in the centre of their arena.

To the untrained eye they look purposeful and intelligent - just like ants.

U-bot in action (Chris Melhuish)
U-bots follow very simple rules
Why would anyone want to design stupid robots that can do clever things? Dr Melhuish explains: "If we want to build very small robots, there will be problems in getting computation on board, and sensing and communication.

"Being small is going to be a problem. So how can you get a whole bunch of dumb small things doing something smart?

"And that's why these techniques, borrowed from the ants, can be exploited to make very small robots. It would be nice to think that we could use nano-robots to carry out repair work inside the human body, but it's early days."

Ant-based communication systems are already in use in the fast-growing world of telephone and online digital networks.

Amazingly, an ant can work out the quickest way from A to B more efficiently than a human boffin with a computer. It bases its behaviour on pheromone trails laid down by its nest-mates.

In the fast lane

So now human communications networks are often based on "virtual pheromone trails".

Myrmecologist Professor Nigel Franks, of the University of Bristol, has introduced the phrase "collective intelligence" to describe ant behaviour.

He keeps ant colonies in little plastic boxes, and he paints his ants different colours (using a brush the size of a human eyelash) so he can watch what each one does.

"Army ant colonies are huge, so they have real traffic-flow problems, but it seems that evolution has programmed them with exactly the right rules of motorist behaviour so that they automatically form lanes.

"What's really gorgeous about this is that the ants that are unburdened, that are running out to the swarm-front to find new prey-items, can run more quickly because they're not carrying anything, and they form two express lanes on either side of the main trail, whereas all the ants coming back with food take a central lane."

What might really worry us is the most recent discovery made in Professor Franks' Ant Lab.

It seems that ants are not just dumb miracles of evolution - they can learn from experience.

When you destroy their nest and make them migrate to a new one, they manage it very efficiently, as you would expect.

If you repeat the exercise next day, they achieve the same thing - but this time they do it even faster. Now that's scary.

Ants are featured on BBC Radio 4 in Animal Magic, a week-long series exploring the sometimes bizarre relationships between human beings and some of the most neglected and despised creatures on the planet.

The series starts on Monday 7 March. The programmes are broadcast at 1545 GMT each day.

Why ants make great gardeners
18 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
Ant history revealed
10 May 03 |  Science/Nature
Ant supercolony dominates Europe
16 Apr 02 |  Science/Nature


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