Ants are capable of remarkable feats of coordination. They can forge complex paths through the jungle, build sophisticated structures, and adapt foraging patterns to fit their environment, all without orders from a centralized source. Deborah Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University, hopes to uncover the simple rules that produce complex patterns from simple individual actions.
Ants in particular excel at collective search, automatically tailoring their search strategy to efficiently cover large areas of ground. Gordon has found parallels between the algorithms ant colonies use for foraging and the man-made ones that underlie the Internet. Given how long ants have been solving these kinds of problems, Gordon hopes that she will uncover new algorithms that will ultimately make large-scale computing networks cheaper and more efficient.
Quanta met with Gordon at a social insects conference in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., shortly before she left for a trip to Mexico to study routing algorithms in arboreal ants. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.