Ants Have Been Using Internet Algorithms For Millions of Years

Mankind has been able to accomplish some pretty impressive things, but some of them were around long before we figured them out. Ants, for instance, hunt for food in a way that's basically the same as the Internet's Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and they were doing it long before the Internet was around.

It all has to do with how harvester ants gather their food. The same way that TCP will throttle data transmission if initial packets indicate little bandwidth, harvester ants will send less foragers out for food if the initial ones take too long to come back with grub.

From Stanford News:

[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.

And that's not where the similarities end either. Ants also use TCP's slow start technique, by sending out a wave of foragers (packets) to figure out the relative amount of food (bandwidth) before scaling their numbers up or down. Likewise, the same way a connection will time out if the source stops sending packets, the ants will stop sending out new foragers if none return for 20 minutes.

Balaji Prabhakar, one of the researchers behind the discovery, says that if this behavior had been uncovered pre-Internet, it might have influenced its design. Even so, this foraging process has been seriously time-tested, and there still might be things we can learn from it. In the meantime, who knows what other algorithms might already be out there, quietly waiting to be discovered. [Stanford News]

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