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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Bees invade the internet
The net must turn to the natural world for help
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Soon software that acts like bees or ants could be running the internet.

Researchers at the University of California are claiming that we need radically new ways to run the net as more and more people and devices go online.

Michael Wang and Tatsuya Suda say that existing methods of keeping the net going will not be able to cope when billions of people, mobile phones, hand-held computers and household appliances are routinely using it to communicate.

What is needed, claim the pair, are self-organising systems inspired by biology.

Sir Paul
Sir Paul: He overwhelmed the internet
The researchers are experimenting with discrete programs called agents that have been modelled on bees and ants.

Individually these insects are very stupid but put enough of them together and they do a very efficient job of running and maintaining huge structures like nests and hives without any central control.

By contrast, current internet management systems tend to be very centralised and directed by people.

Mr Wang says that this set-up will be unable to cope when everything from our PCs to refrigerators is online.

No-one will have the time or inclination to ensure that all the devices are doing what they should, he says.

"The devices should just self-manage or self-organise and just do the right things," says Mr Wang.

Many popular web events already struggle to serve all the people that want to see them.

When Sir Paul McCartney did a webcast of a performance at the Cavern in Liverpool, servers were overwhelmed by the numbers wanting to watch the show.

Ants everywhere

Under the scheme proposed by the US researchers, as a website increases in popularity the content on it, be it a video or audio stream, will be copied and ferried to websites closer to the people trying to see or hear it.

Mr Wang says that the user requests are like food and the small software programs that ferry the content across are like bees blazing a trail to the source. The bees "die" when users stop requesting clips.

Belgian scientist Marco Dorigo is looking at using small, stupid, ant-like programs to improve the running of the internet. But he is proposing to let the ants run the infrastructure of the net rather than just serve up video clips to people.

The bee-like software entities are programmed with a few simple rules that define what they do.

This rule-based approach is also being used to recreate huge battle scenes for the Lord of the Rings movie currently being filmed in New Zealand.

The troops in the battle scenes are computer-generated orcs, elves, humans and dwarves that have been programmed with a few rules that define their fighting style, who their enemies are and what to do when a foe has been killed.

Battle commences when the troops are unleashed on each other and computer cameras record the flow of action.

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