I’ve always been fascinated by ants and social insects. Just yesterday, I ordered E.O. Wilson’s The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. We can learn a great deal about decentralization, complex systems, and our own society from social insects.
One recent line of research shows that ants are better at managing congestion than humans, and actually help each other move around their colony much more efficiently that we thought. Traffic and traffic jams have baffled scientists for ages. Congestion often appears and then disappears on the same road without any obvious reasons. But ants have a way of avoiding that congestion before it even starts.
You never see ant routes backed up or congested, they seem to have a perfectly organized system. As humans, we tend to think from a top-down perspective, wondering who’s in charge of this system, who controls the routes. It’s hard for us to understand that no one is in control, it’s a completely decentralized system, and it works better than a planned one ever could.
Dresden University of Technology collective intelligence expert Dr. Dirk Helbing and his team of research scientists set up an “ant highway” with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Soon the narrower route became congested. But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path. But, if the returning ant came from a congestion-free route, she did not redirect the newcomer. The result was that just before the shortest route became clogged the ants were diverted to another route and traffic jams never formed.
The researchers also created a computer model of more complex ant networks with routes of different lengths and found that, even though the rerouted ants sometimes took a longer route, they still got to the food quickly and efficiently.
So how do we put this into action on human roads? The answer: decentralization. Instead of a centralized system of traffic control, we could set up some sort of communications system, or a series of lights. Drivers heading in one direction would have the option of telling the system that the road they just passed on the other side is congested. The real key is trying it out and seeing what works. That’s the beauty of these complex adaptive systems, you try out new ways of doing things, throw out what doesn’t work, and keep what does, just like evolution. Eventually, you have a near perfect system.