Ants Have Used Internet Algorithms for Ages, Don’t Act Pretentious About It
By Cassandra Khaw
PCWorldAug 27, 2012 4:47 pm PDT
We all know that ants are amazing biological creations, but it was only recently that researchers discovered that a certain breed of harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave in a way that is not dissimilar from the way Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for data transfer.
Stanford Professor of Computer Science Balaji Prabhakar–along with his colleague Deborah Gordon, a biology professor–came to the realization that the algorithm utilized by the ants to determine how much food is available is essentially the same as the one used in the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP).
Most interestingly of all, the researchers discovered that the ants mirrored two other phases of TCP. One phase, which is known as “slow start,” is an algorithm that TCP uses to control congestion within the network by transmitting a large wave of packets to gauge available bandwidth; harvester ants apparently work using a similar principle: They first send out foragers to determine availability before fine-tuning the rate of outgoing foragers.
Similarly, there is a protocol known as time-out that occurs when a data transfer link is broken or disrupted. And sure enough, harvester ants behave much the same: If foragers do not return after more than twenty minutes, no more harvester ants are sent out.
Prabhakar told Stanford Engineering News that if this discovery had been made in the 1970s, prior to the invention of the TCP, harvester ants could have influenced the design of the Internet.