Ants REAL Header

The Anternet: A History

Humorously, the ‘anternet’ is not that new of a concept.  Compared to humanity’s history it is, but in the range of IoT, it’s about as old as the printing press.  The concept of biomimicry is extremely interesting to me and when I started learning about the connection between ant-communication and the internet, I knew I had to write a short history of it.

In 2012 at Stanford University, a biology professor named Deborah Gordon discovered that the algorithm used by harvester ants to decide how many workers to send out to get food was remarkably similar to Transmission Control Protocols (which you might recognize in the acronym TCP/IP).  She spoke with Balaji Prabhakar, a computer science professor, and together they created an algorithm to describe harvester ants’ foraging habits based on TCP.  It turned out to be almost identical to what the harvester ants did naturally.

“Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they’ve been doing it for millions of years.” said Prabhakar.  Even more amazing, “Prabhakar said that had this discovery been made in the 1970s, before TCP was written, harvester ants very well could have influenced the design of the Internet.” according to Stanford.  Truly awesome.

One of the ways to understand how the ants’ communication and TCP is similar is to discuss bandwidth and data packets. But in this case, bandwidth is the amount of food available and the data packets are worker ants.  At the beginning of a new nest’s food search (or at the beginning of the internet), workers will be sent out in short spurts, testing to see what the  local food availability is.  If there is a lot of food available, more ants will be sent out.  The nest learns about food availability metrics when worker ants return with morsels.  When there is more food, the workers return faster.  If workers are slow to return, the nest understands that food availability isn’t too high. The more food there is, the faster workers return, and the more workers are then sent out.

Enders Game Book Cover

(The way that the ants talk to each other might remind one of the buggers from Ender’s Game series.  And they were more properly called Formics, which happens to be a modern corruption of the Latin formica, meaning ant.)

In the same way, when the internet began, it depended on available bandwidth.  (It still does – but we have much more bandwidth available now.)  Data packets would be sent out using Transmission Control Protocols to test available bandwidth.  If there was a lot, the file transfer would continue with larger portions of data sent.  If there wasn’t as much available bandwidth, the data transfer would automatically be throttled.  (Remember those days when there was no such thing as ‘streaming’?)

To return to the concept of biomimicry, the Anternet does not technically categorize as such.  Active biomimicry means that humans are mirroring something in nature to create something for human usage.  The most common example is Velcro, which mimics the sticking ability of (what the Texans in my family would call) cockleburs with tiny hooks and loops.

The Anternet and the Internet’s similarities would more properly be called Convergent Evolution.  Two distinct species (pretending that the Internet is such) evolved to have the same characteristic or behavioral pattern, without being actually related or influencing each other.

If you want to learn more about the truly amazing way that ants communicate, specifically regarding how it can help humans with everything from the internet to cancer, you can see Deborah Gordon herself give a TEDtalk here.