How ant swarms read symbolic information using collective intelligence

An ant from ant swarms
‘An ant on duty’ – Ants in ant swarms just switch tasks and no one tells them when and how to. There is no planning. This collective and adaptive social behavior has huge potential in energy efficient engineering and scientific applications. Adaptive robotics is one big area. I drew the above sketch. It is open for interpretation.

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

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

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

For example, ant swarms 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 colony.

Have you seen it? If yes, then please send your comments.

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 swarms, they can switch roles 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 swarms’. However, no single neuron has told the brain to think ‘ant swarms’.

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 bind them. So when their territory expands their encounters become less often. The increase and decrease of encounters seems to make those behavioral changes and path shifts in ant swarms.

Now, we will look at a couple of social behavior examples that Army ants exhibit using collective intelligence. Army ants read symbolic information as they pass them from one ant to another.

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

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Ant swarms have no central planning

Swarms of Army ants have two commendable characteristics. One is time keeping and the other one is navigation.

The Ant swarms maintain precise timing, which they display it during their nomadic and stationary phases. They maintain a strict 15 day period of nomadic behavior when their larvae are growing and followed by a 20-day stationary period during which the pupae develops.

The ant swarms navigational skills are exceptional and the way they navigate the thick forest floors of the tropical rain forest is a mystery.

During nomadic phase, the army ants conduct raids in a highly organized manner. The ants separate each raid by about approx. 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 very normal eyesight unlike other insects which have multifaceted compound eyes. They have a single facet compound eye, which makes for a very normal eyesight. Using this eyesight they remarkably navigate, finding their way in and out of the forest floor.

One reason could be that ant swarms behave like one and feel like one, wherein the thousands of individual single facet compound eyes act and move together as one. This coordinated act enables them to find their way through the forest floor.

In a similar finding, researchers from Princeton University have reported in a news article that army ants behaving like ant swarms use collective intelligence to build ‘living bridges’ using their own bodies.

If the ants detect congestion on the raiding trail, they would all assemble and build a bridge and disassemble or move away when there is 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 and they do this on a daily basis.

The applications for such adaptive and complex behavior are far reaching 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 ant swarms coordinate without any central rule. No manager or leader ant tells them what to do next. The ants just switch tasks basing on their perceived conditions. Such behavior also exists in birds flying in a flock and school of swimming fish as well. They just know when to turn in unison.

All said and done, ant swarms behavior confirms the existence of collective intelligence.


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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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