Monday, November 12, 2007


From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm
Published: November 13, 2007

An interesting article in the New York Times about studying swarms. The two parts I found most interesting were the parts where they got computer models to correctly mimic insect swarms, and when they were able to do the same thing with humans.

Here is an excerpt:

"In the case of army ants, Dr. Couzin was intrigued by their highways. Army ants returning to their nest with food travel in a dense column. This incoming lane is flanked by two lanes of outgoing traffic. A three-lane highway of army ants can stretch for as far as 150 yards from the ant nest, comprising hundreds of thousands of insects.

What Dr. Couzin wanted to know was why army ants do not move to and from their colony in a mad, disorganized scramble. To find out, he built a computer model based on some basic ant biology. Each simulated ant laid down a chemical marker that attracted other ants while the marker was still fresh. Each ant could also sweep the air with its antennas; if it made contact with another ant, it turned away and slowed down to avoid a collision.

Dr. Couzin analyzed how the ants behaved when he tweaked their behavior. If the ants turned away too quickly from oncoming insects, they lost the scent of their trail. If they did not turn fast enough, they ground to a halt and forced ants behind them to slow down. Dr. Couzin found that a narrow range of behavior allowed ants to move as a group as quickly as possible.

It turned out that these optimal ants also spontaneously formed highways. If the ants going in one direction happened to become dense, their chemical trails attracted more ants headed the same way. This feedback caused the ants to form a single packed column. The ants going the other direction turned away from the oncoming traffic and formed flanking lanes."


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