How swarming ants read and write symbolic information for collective intelligence

The swarming ants just switch tasks and no one tells them when and how to. There is no planning. Their collective adaptive behavior has huge potential for energy efficient engineering applications, which involve peer-to-peer interactions.

An individual ant may not be intelligent but a colony or a swarm of ants is. A typical ant colony or a swarm consists of millions of ants and they all move and act as one. In fact, they become an intelligent super-organism all bundled as a ‘super one’.

Researchers say that such intelligence is an emergent property of collective intelligence. Intelligence itself involves rational processing and our perception of symbolic information. Human consciousness has the extraordinary processing power. To put it simple way, our intelligence stems from accessing the internal and external information that emerges from this processing power. It is a great mystery.

Ants and for that matter, almost all animals seem to access this external information collectively as one.

For example, ants know when to keep the nests warm and do coordinated foraging for food without somebody telling them. Ants leave a pheromone trail that other ants seem to pick it up and do specific tasks unquestioned like the above. Nevertheless, this does not explain everything. Clearly, there is no single leader ant among them. Ants seem to pass this symbolic information from one ant to another interpreting them in such a way to produce remarkable behavioral patterns for the collective benefit of the entire ant swarm or colony.

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A single neuron in the human brain does something only when it connects to other neurons. In addition, all (80 Billion odd neurons) collectively do something to become – you and me. This has a striking resemblance to ants and has what motivated Dr Deborah M. Gordon, who studies ants. Dr. Deborah is the assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford University.

Dr. Deborah says that ants have several duties and job descriptions. Each ant on this planet has a job. Among them, four of them are common, which are Patrolling, Foraging, Housekeeping and Midden (piling seeds for reuse). The foraging ants go where the patrollers find food. Job roles are not assigned within the ant swarm, they can switch roles at any time, and all this happens without a leader and a central plan.

An ant colony is analogous to how it works in the brain says, Dr. Deborah. A single neuron in the brain can do simple things but together, the brain thinks ant. However, no single neuron has told the brain to ‘think ant’.

When ants bump into each other, they pick up or access the symbolic information. Ants together know their territory and they know where it ends. When the territory shrinks, they encounter each other more and there is streaming information. Even when their territory expands, they seem to know it. A certain threshold of encounters binds them. When the threshold increases or decreases, they understand that and make behavioral changes and path shifts.

Now, we will look at a couple of social behaviors that swarming army ants exhibit as collective intelligence by reading and writing the symbolic information and passing them from one ant to another.

Army ants as a name are applied to over 200 species of ants and they are known for their aggressive foraging behavior. They are called ‘raids’ and they conduct these raids on the forest floors of tropical rainforests in South America and Asia.

Army ants have two commendable characteristics. One is timekeeping and the other one is navigation. The Army ants maintain exact time, which they display during their wandering or nomadic phase and stationary phase. The ants maintain a strict 15 day period of nomadic behavior when their larvae are growing and then followed by a 20-day stationary period where the pupae develop.

Their navigational skills are exceptional and how they navigate on the thick forest floors of the tropical rainforest is a mystery.  During the nomadic phase, the army ants conduct raids in a highly organized manner. The ants separate each raid by about 123 degrees on the forest floor. This separation allows new prey to enter the previously raided area. This makes for a fresh bounty start again for the ants.  How the ants precisely make such separation in a coordinated manner without central rules, is a mystery.

Another interesting feature is their eyesight. The ants have a poor eyesight. They do not have the multifaceted compound eye like the other insect species. They have a single facet compound eye, which makes for a very normal eyesight and even then, they have remarkable navigational skills finding their way in and out of the forest floor. One reason is that the army ants behave like a huge swarm where thousands of compound eyes act together and move together to find their way.

In a similar fashion, researchers from  Princeton University have reported in a news article that army ants use collective intelligence to build ‘living bridges’ based on the conditions of movement.  If the ants detect congestion in the raiding trail, they would all assemble and build a bridge and they would move away or disassemble when there is a free flow of movement if you want to call it as ‘no traffic’.

The ants do this all the time to save energy and be more efficient. The ants use their own bodies to build the structure. They are maximizing their time and minimizing their effort. It is their daily behavior.

The applications are far-flung in the areas of Robotics and Swarm intelligence. Radhika Nagpal, who is a professor of computer science at Harvard University, says that this is much more fundamental in how complex systems are assemble and adapt in nature.

Such adaptive and self-organizing behavior with massive collective intelligence has huge potential for engineering applications for calculating cost-benefit ratios at a network level, says Radhika.

The ants coordinate without any central rule nor would any manager to tell them what be their next tasks. The ants just switch tasks basing on their perceived conditions. Such behavior also exists in birds flying in a flock and so a school of fish as well. They just know when to turn in unison and there is no central plan.


Ramkumar Yaragarla

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