The Genius of Swarms
A single ant or bee isn’t smart, but their colonies are. The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems, from truck routing to military robots.
I used to think ants knew what they were doing. The ones marching across my kitchen counter looked so confident, I just figured they had a plan, knew where they were going and what needed to be done. How else could ants organize highways, build elaborate nests, stage epic raids, and do all the other things ants do?
Turns out I was wrong. Ants aren’t clever little engineers, architects, or warriors after all—at least not as individuals. When it comes to deciding what to do next, most ants don’t have a clue. “If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you’ll be impressed by how inept it is,” says Deborah M. Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University.
How do we explain, then, the success of Earth’s 12,000 or so known ant species? They must have learned something in 140 million years.
“Ants aren’t smart,” Gordon says. “Ant colonies are.” A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence. (via Swarm Theory - National Geographic Magazine)