Natures wonders: ant foraging mimics TCP (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Friday, May 06, 2016, 02:31 (1384 days ago) @ David Turell

In computers there is software called transmission control protocol which is the same as the way ants control foraging rates:

"Whenever another forager ant returns with food, it drops off its load and touches antennae with waiting ants. Whether or not any individual forager sallies forth depends on the number of interactions it has with returning foragers and the timing of those interactions. So a complex collective behavior is governed solely through simple individual interactions.

"A forager won't come back until it finds something," Gordon told National Geographic. "The less food there is [within reach], the longer it takes the forager to find it and get back. The more food there is, the faster it comes back. So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is."


"'The algorithm the ants were using to discover how much food there is available is essentially the same as that used in the Transmission Control Protocol," he said.

"Transmission Control Protocol, also known as TCP, is a big part of what makes the Internet possible. The Internet involves a lot of machines sending each other files—including websites, videos, text documents, and audio—over a vast network of hardware including routers, cables, satellites, cellphone towers, and computers.


"If a source hosting a file is using TCP, it breaks the file down into smaller chunks, called “packets”. It sends out a bunch of packets to the requester and monitors the acknowledgements of receipt, called “acks”, to calibrate how quickly to send the rest of the packets.

"If we consider that the ant colony's goal is to collect more food and expend fewer ants, and a server's goal is to send a file and avoid congestion or overload, then the similarities are clear. Sending a packet through the Internet is analogous to releasing a forager ant into the wild. Getting an ack of a packet's receipt is analogous to a forager ant returning with food. If lots of acks come back quickly, this corresponds to good bandwidth availability—just like if a lot of ants come back quickly, this corresponds to good food availability. Good availability means the release of more ants or more packets. And if ants or acks come back slowly, or don't come back at all, then release is either slowed or shut down entirely. In the case of harvester ants, shut down means foragers stop going out for a while. In the case of the Internet, the connection times out.


"Gordon has said that, because each individual ant is so limited in its abilities, “ant algorithms have to be simple, distributed, and scalable -- the very qualities that we need in engineered distributed systems.” This is what made a functional Internet scalable from a few dozen initial machines to the billions that comprise it today.


"Gordon's most recent research suggests that at least certain aspects of foraging technique—a collective behavior—are heritable. This not only means that complex algorithms like these might have developed through natural selection, but that these inhuman engineers could be developing new ones, right now."

Comment: It requires the collective cooperation of the whole foraging group of the colony. It raises the thought that it involves responding to the rates of return against time. Note the individual is thought to be just a cog in the machinery.

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