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September 2, 2012

Ants Speak the Language of the Internet

If you have thought than only humans are intelligent, then pay close attention. According to a paper written by a Stanford biologist and computer scientist, ants speak the language of the Internet - “ifs,” “elses” and “end ifs.”

Deborah Gordon, a biology professor, had recently prepared an algorithm that described how harvester ants go out and search for food. There was something suspicious in the algorithm, so Gordon called up computer science professor Balaji Prabhakar and asked him if that reminded him in any way of file transfers on computer networks.

Prabhakar told Bjorn Carey of Stanford engineering’s in-house news site, “The next day it occurred to me, ‘Oh wait, this is almost the same as how Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!’ 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.”

Carey explained the whole process, “Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants — which forage for seeds as individuals — leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability. A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.”

That process is almost identical to how computers transfer files on computer networks using transmission control protocol (TCP). The system divides data into numbered packets. When the destination receives a packet, it sends back an acknowledgment to the source. If that comes back slowly, the source will decrease speed, and if it comes back quickly, it will increase speed.

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