Animal IQ

Ants Work Together To Make Trips Faster. Now Humans Can Do The Same Thing.

Ugh. Traffic. It's the worst. Why does everybody else have to be going the same direction you're going? Or if they do, then why do they all have to be going so slow? Don't they know that some of us have pie-eating contests to get to? There's got to be a better way! As a matter of fact, there is. It's called ant colony optimization, and it's already starting to change the way we drive.

1. The first ant finds a food source (F) along a path (a), then returns to the nest (N) while laying a pheronome trail. 2. The other ants head toward the food using one of any possible paths, but the reinforcement of the shortest path via pheromones makes it more appealing. 3. Finally, all ants eventually follow the shortest path, and the pheronome trails of the others evaporate.

Pheremone-ly The Lonely

So how is it that ants make such good role models for our travel plans? Let's start at the anthill. The first bunch of ants to head out in search of food don't know where they're going, so they just wander off in random directions. Ant Harriet scurries 10 feet and finds a stash of marshmallows, while Ant Viv scurries 20 feet and finds the same sugary stash—she just took a more circuitous route to get there. Both of them announce their success by leaving pheromones on the ground as they make their separate ways back to the anthill. Now it's Ant Em and Ant Bee's turn. Em follows Harriet's 10-foot trail and Bee follows Viv's 20-foot trail, and both of them leave pheromones behind as well. But by the time Bee has made it to the marshmallows, Em is already back at the hill. So when Ant Esther heads out, she's got two route choices, and one smells twice as strong as the other. She knows right away to go with the 10-foot trail. Over time, the shortest path to the food becomes a neon-colored highway of pheromones, while the pheromones on the longer paths evaporate as fewer and fewer ants take the bait.

The key is that, even though no individual ant knows what the fastest route to food food is to begin with, each one leaves information behind for all of the ants to follow. Thus, although the early waves of foragers will for the most part fail in their mission, a pattern swiftly emerges that tends to lead the colony towards the best option. What makes this especially impressive is the fact that the pheromones are really the ants' only means of communication—they can't convey any more detail than "if you go this way, you will eventually reach food." So if ants can find the best possible route so easily, why is it so hard for humans to do so? If only the drivers who initially hit a slowdown could tell drivers miles behind them that there's a jam coming up. It would give those drivers in the rear the chance to find a faster route, thereby taking cars off the road and making the jam a lot less heinous in the long run.

Try This If Traffic Bugs You

The good news is we can do exactly that. Traffic-monitoring apps such as Waze monitor the speed of users on the road, and give them the ability to report traffic jams, accidents, and other slow-downs. Get enough of those messages and you'll develop a pretty reliable sense of how bad the traffic build-up really is. But then again, there are a few key differences between the needs of an ant colony and the needs of an individual person. For the ants, the goal is to find a destination, but most people don't get in the car until they know where they're going.

More significantly, the ants all have the same goal, while people tend to be a bit more selfish. As the confounding escalator experiment shows, a solution that gets an individual to their destination faster can often clog up the path for everybody else—when you swerve through slowing traffic, you might get through it faster than you would by taking a different route, but you also cause everybody else to slow down even more. In fact, a 2012 study from MIT found that cancelling 1 percent of trips in certain high-traffic areas could reduce the travel times of the entire metropolitan area by as much as 18 percent. But until the day we finally develop a hive mind and start taking orders from a giant queen, it's not likely that that 1 percent will be convinced to just stay home. Oh well, a driver can dream.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Ants

Are Ants Better Communicators Than You?

How Are Ants So Strong?

Why Are Some Ants "Lazy?"

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 30, 2017

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