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Tuesday, 18 November 2008 20:47

Ants should be behind the wheel of our cars

A German study found that ants are much better at keeping traffic flowing without congestion than us human drivers. We might be much better off with driving advice from our little friends.

The authors—Karsten Peters, Anders Johansson, Audrey Dussutour, and Dirk Helbing—have published their results at arXiv.org (Physics): arXiv:0810.4583v1.

Their October 25, 2008 paper “Analytical and Numerical Investigation of Ant Behavior Under Crowded Conditions” describes why ants are better at traffic control than humans.

They state in their abstract, “Swarm intelligence is widely recognized as a powerful paradigm of self-organized optimization, with numerous examples of successful applications in distributed artificial intelligence. However, the role of physical interactions in the organization of traffic flows in ants under crowded conditions has only been studied very recently.”

Swarm intelligence (SI) is described as an artificial intelligence that is based on the larger group behavior of smaller self-organized and decentralized groups. The larger group is essentially controlled by simple rules used by smaller groups, which are communicated throughout the groups.

In other words, the researchers studied how ants individually move around in their colony and how the ant group itself is controlled by these individual actions.

The team, headed by Dirk Helbing, from the Dresden University of Technology (Germany) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Techology (Zurich, Switzerland), arranged routes of different widths that ran between the ants’ nest and a supply of sugar syrup.

Page two discusses the experimental results the Helbing team discovered from the actions of the ants.

Analyzing their movements, the Helbing team found that the less-wide path soon became overcrowded as the ants went back and forth between the nest and the food.

However, ants returning from the sugar syrup to the nest, after having encountered the traffic snarl, told the ants just heading out from the nest to the food what had happened.

The returning ants pushed the starting-out ants into the wider path, thus avoiding the traffic congestion in the narrower path.

Then the returning ants did not encounter the traffic mess in the narrow path, they did not bump into the other ants and try to change their path.

The team writes, “The related results suggest new ways of congestion control and simple algorithms for optimal resource usage based on local interactions and, therefore, decentralized control concepts.”

Their abstract continues to state, “Here, we present a mathematical analysis of such a concept for an experiment with two alternative ways with limited capacities between a food source and the nest of an ant colony. Moreover, we carry out microscopic computer simulations for generalized setups, in which ants have more alternatives or the alternative ways are of different lengths.”

“In this way and by variation of interaction parameters, we can get a better idea, how powerful congestion control based on local repulsive interactions may be. Finally, we will discuss potential applications of this design principle to routing in traffic or data networks and machine usage in supply systems.”

Page three concludes.

In other words, the researchers used a computer model to create complex ant networks to simulate routes of different lengths and widths. Then, they analyzed the actions of the ants after having to contend with getting from one point (nest) to another (food) and then back to the original point (nest).

The researchers discovered that when congestion occurred along one path, the ants would re-direct their travels to another path.

Even though the distance was greater, they always made it to their destination in a quick and efficient manner.

According to the New Scientist article “Ants know how to keep traffic flowing,” “If humans drivers travelling in opposite directions could pass congestion information to each other in this way, we would all be better off.” [November 8-14, 2008, page 17]

Although seemingly very simple, why can’t humans do this in traffic? We can, but so far we haven’t.

We do have cell phones. We have sensors and videos on highways. We have overhead signs over highways. We have radio stations (which could be used to re-direct traffic). We have police patrolling our roads.

We have all we need to set up an effective way to re-direct traffic when congestion gets backed up.

However, so far we just sit in traffic, burning precious gasoline and wasting time. You would think with brains much larger than ants, we could come up with a solution to our traffic problems.

The least we could do would be to roll down the window and yell "Congestion ahead, find another route!"

For more information on human traffic congestion (any ants reading this can ignore it), please read the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of Transportation, article “Operational Solutions to Traffic Congestion.”

A more comprehensive report by the FHWA follows in the article “Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Trends and Advanced Strategies for Congestion Mitigation.”


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