Research dating back to the 1960s ultimately gave birth to the Internet, which at a glance doesn't seem to have much in common with ants. Look closely, however, and you'll discover certain parallels between today's vast network of interconnected computers and the underground tunnels of those social insects that belong to the family Formicidae.
That's the conclusion reached by two Standford researchers who discovered that a species of harvester ants determine how many foragers to send out of the nest in similar fashion to the way Internet
protocols examine how much bandwidth is available for transferring data. They're calling it the "anternet."
Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of computer science at Standford, fielded a call from Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at the same university, who made the initial discover. At first, Prabhakar said he didn't see the parallel between ant colonies and data transfers on computer networks. A day later, a light bulb went off.
Image Source: Flickr (jurvetson)
"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 (TCP)," Prabhakar said.
uses a feedback loop whereby the source and destination points communicate with each other when data packets are sent and received. Depending on how fast or slow messages are sent and received, the source can determine how much bandwidth is available and throttle as necessary.
That's grossly simplifying things, but it's also very similar to how harvester ants operate. According to Gordon, the rate at which harvester ants leave the nest in search for food directly corresponds to how much food is available. When seeds are plentiful, the forager returns faster and more ants leaves to forage. But when food is scarce and ants start returning without any seeds, the search process is slowed down, or throttled, if you will.
"Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they've been doing it for millions of years," Prabhakar said.