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"Swarm Smarts"

by Eric Bonabeau and Guy Théraulaz, Scientific American, March 2000, pp. 72-79.

Solving Complex Problems Using Ant Models

As we moved into our new home in Los Angeles, in 1986, I carelessly put some food remnants into one of the shipping boxes in the yard.  The next day, I marveled at a continuous 2-way stream of ants forming a chain from their nest into the box.  The path of the ants appeared to optimized in a shortest-patch solution to a modestly complex geometry problem: straight from the nest to a point at the box base, then up at an angle to the nearest point of entry at the top. This was a living example of how nature often optimizes solutions.  It reminded me once researching in college how soap bubbles (shortest connections) and other physical systems can solve difficult problems.

"Swarm Smarts" provides an intriguing look at how modeling social insects is providing solutions to several daunting problems.  Ants are simple creatures, whose behavior can be described with simple rules. I once read an article about programming a robot to mimic the foraging behavior of an ant on a beach.  This article shows how a community of simple-acting agents can work together to accomplish complex tasks.

When an ant leaves the nest looking for food, it leaves a pheromone (scent) trail for it to follow back and for other ants to follow.  The first foraging ant making it back to the next leaves a double-trail (one trail leaving, and one returning). Thus, the shortest route is doubly marked, and more ants will follow it.  This simple model finds the shortest route between the nest and a food source.  Allowing the pheromone trail to "evaporate" (as in nature) provides the ants a mechanism to explore for alternate food sources when the first is depleting and for alternate routes should the first become blocked.

By analogy, businesses want to solve problems such as:

This is a fun article about how a biological can solve human business problems by analogy. For 3-1/2 decades Scientific American has been my favorite scientific journal—including economics, the "dismal science."

—John Schuyler, February 2000

Copyright © 2000 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.