Ants Never Have Traffic Jams: What We Can Learn About Collective Problem Solving

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Every day animals make decisions: what to eat, where to go, and how to survive. Many of these decisions help us solve individual problems, but sometimes they allow us to solve problems collectively. Collective problem solving is the act of making a group decision without a leader. Humans do this regularly—it’s the essence of democracy. But amazingly, scientists also find this behavior in animals, even insects! At CU Boulder, graduate student Helen McCreery and her team studied collective problem solving among ants. By studying this behavior in ants, scientists can learn a lot about the animal kingdom as a whole.

“Collective behavior of groups turns out to be incredibly important across all scales of the natural world,” says McCreery, “Any time you have groups even of simple individuals you see emerging behaviors of those groups that is really important. A lot of the complexity of the world comes from these emerging properties that happen when you put groups together.”

McCreery studied transport ants, a category of ants that have the natural ability to transport large amounts of food back to their nest. They also have the ability to communicate with each other, using smell and touch, while moving around their environment. McCreery explored how these ants would navigate back to their nest when presented with an obstacle.

McCreery challenged transport ants by placing three different obstacles between them and their nest: a wall, a cul-de-sac, and a trap. All of these obstacles represent challenges ants might face in their natural environment as they gather food. The wall is the easiest obstacle to get around; the cul-de-sac is more challenging because it requires the ants to move in the opposite direction of the nest. The trap is an impossible obstacle because once the ants are inside, they can’t escape.

Example ant obstacle: the cul-de-sac

 When groups of ants encountered these obstacles, they rapidly changed directions, and rarely paused during navigation. This suggests that the ants maintained a consensus, even when the nest direction was blocked. Overall, the ants implemented a flexible strategy, which allowed them to overcome both complex and simple obstacles.

There is a practical reason for studying this behavior. McCreery is collaborating with computer scientists that build robots. By understanding how insects make decisions without the benefits of a complex brain, they can design software for simple and cheap robots. McCreery also suggests that we could use this research to help solve problems that humans aren’t very good at solving collectively yet. She draws analogy between humans on busy freeways and ants, which never seem to deal with traffic on their commute.

“Ants have high traffic patterns without traffic jams. Since we can’t just tell humans to be like that, we could use software in order to better those conditions.” McCreery proposes that their research could help inform those software programs. In the future, we might be taking some driving lessons from our six-legged insect friends.

By Willow Reed

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