Like dinosaurs and giant squid, ants belong to a select collection of creatures that truly ignite our imaginations.
It should not be so darn fascinating to watch a trail of ants carry off bits of an unattended sandwich, but the idea of a little society complete with a queen living off our scraps is absolutely captivating if you take notice of it.
It turns out this captivation is handy because the lessons we’re learning from ants, and the potential consequences of those lessons, are extraordinary.
Ants are a lot like the Internet.
A colony is composed of many ants whose independent actions lead to colony-wide behaviors too complex for the individuals to do alone. This kind of group behavior is also what defines the Internet.
In the late 2000s, Internet users still used MySpace for social networking, even with growing dislike for the site.
Everyone wanted to abandon ship for new sites like Facebook, but that led to another problem. A social network is only worth having if it’s what your friends use, and no one wants to be the first to leave to an empty social network. Everyone had to leave all at once. Suddenly after a few brave Internet pioneers join Facebook to try it out, it becomes just popular enough for people to feel that making an account is worthwhile.
Thus follows the fall of MySpace and metephoric rise of Facebook.
Ants have to make decisions like this all the time. They are so great at it that they’ve become a model organism for studying group decision making and leaderless group behavior.
Colonies are said to be complex, but their behavior emerges from a relatively simple set of rules and procedures that every ant follows all the time. This is why scientists refer to social insect societies as “complex systems.”
By developing models of ant behavior, we are gaining a better understanding all kinds of complex systems in fields as far reaching as economics, biology, sociology and even robotics.
Uses of this kind of knowledge range from potentially saving countless lives in search and rescue operations to improving our internet and telephone networks.
Even the very existence of life on Earth stands to be potentially explained using lessons learned from complex systems theory combined with organic chemistry.
Of course, ant colonies are not the only complex systems being studied, but for a critter most people consider a common pest, that’s pretty remarkable.
When we spot thousands of workers scurrying in and out the mouth of an anthill, foraging for food or defending their home with mandible and stinger against the scourge of home-destroying 5-year-olds, we ask: How is it possible?
How can such tiny and mindless insects form intelligent groups? The answers to these questions have implications as great as the curiosity that inspires them.
Remember, ants have been making societies and completing great feats of engineering for millions of years before humans existed. And as they say, there’s wisdom in learning from our elders.
Reach the columnist at Jacob.Evans@asu.edu or follow him at @JacobEvansSP