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The Secret to Ant Efficiency Is Idleness

How do ant colonies function so efficiency, despite the space constraints? Georgia Institute of Technology physicist, Daniel I. Goldman, and his colleagues researched ant colonies and small robots  to find out. In the paper “Collective clog control: Optimizing traffic flow in confined biological and robophysical excavation”, which was published in science in August 2018, it was found that the secret to efficiency is idleness. It was observed that in ant colonies, 30% of ants do 70% of the work. This allows the traffic tunnels to remain clear and prevent traffic jams, which would decrease the overall efficiency of the colony.  The scientists found that this ratio remained the same even when they switched out the specific ants.

This observation led researchers to question if this was actually the optimal ratio. The researchers ran multiple computer simulation and found that this was the ideal distribution of work given the space constraints. For maximum effect, Goldman said “there’s only one good strategy”, which is the 70/30 ratio. This is similar to the Nash Equilibrium for traffic that we studied in class. To further test the optimality of the 70/30 ratio, the researchers ran simulations with small robots. They found that programming the robots to easily give up when there was too much traffic, lead to the maximum efficiency. This discovery could have implications for robots responding to disaster sites, robots delivering drugs in the bloodstream, or more efficient transportation. While the problem was slightly different than the Nash Equilibrium in traffic that we studied in class, many of the same principles such was finding the optimal amount of traffic for maximum efficiency was the same.

 

NYT Article : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/16/science/ants-worker-idleness.html

Science Paper: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/361/6403/672.full.pdf

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