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Wednesday, January 28, 1998 Published at 14:07 GMT


Humble ant is a software saviour
image: [ Marching ants are showing the way for software engineers ]
Marching ants are showing the way for software engineers

The foraging techniques of the humble ant are proving to be an inspiration in tackling more technological bugs.

At first sight, the insect's totally random approach to tracking down food may appear more of a hindrance than a blessing.

But it is a method that computer programmers admire and one that they are now trying to mimic

Prof Chris Winter explains how ants are inspiring computer programmers (47")
The head of British Telecom Future Systems, Professor Chris Winter, says the influence of the ant should not be underestimated.

"One of the problems we have at the moment is when writing a computer system everything has to be centrally controlled," said Prof Winter.

"Ants walk around at random and there's no intelligent controller telling them what to do. When they find the food they simply run back to the nest laying a little pheromone trail that other ants can smell."

The rest of the colony need only follow that path to fetch the remaining food.

The combination of random behaviour and fast learning has won many fans in the world of software troubleshooting.

BT Future Systems is devoted to looking at biology for inspiration in order to make software systems more intelligent, robust, cheaper and simpler. Prof Winter started work with ants several years ago after becoming fascinated by their ability to organise themselves.

He credits ants with inspiring a more efficient approach to weeding out program bugs.

Such 'self-governing' programs have already been put to use in BT's development network.

"We do much the same as the ants. Our little programs run around the BT network and whenever they find a problem they lay a little time stamp down which highlights the fault and draws help from other software," said Prof Winter.

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