Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules

photo by Alex Wild

Give a colony of garden ants a week and a pile of dirt, and they’ll transform it into an underground edifice about the height of a skyscraper in an ant-scaled city. Without a blueprint or a leader, thousands of insects moving specks of dirt create a complex, spongelike structure with parallel levels connected by a network of tunnels. Some ant species even build living structures out of their bodies: Army ants and fire ants in Central and South America assemble themselves into bridges that smooth their path on foraging expeditions, and certain types of fire ants cluster into makeshift rafts to escape floods.

How do insects with tiny brains engineer such impressive structures?

via Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules | Simons Foundation.

Ever since I found out something about how ant colonies work, I’ve had an interest in them.  Each ant is pretty dumb, but by following simple rules of interaction, they collectively do things that used to make me wonder if an ant colony had a kind of group consciousness.  Knowing something now about neuroscience theories of consciousness, I no longer wonder that.

But the emergent behavior of these colonies is strikingly similar to goal directed behavior.  It makes me wonder what kind of intelligent extraterrestrials might exist out there.  It’s not hard to imagine a species that could collectively be a technological civilization, but whose individual members were dumb as individual ants.

6 thoughts on “Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules

  1. “swarm robotics”, “self-healing materials”, “systems capable of organizing and fixing themselves”, “how groups of cells give rise to organs”, “adaptive buildings”, “bridges”, and “the brain”

    Wow, utterly fascinating! I’d imagine this kind of stuff might have EO Wilson wishing he were just starting his career!


    1. I was actually surprised that the article didn’t talk about Wilson. He was, after all, the person who managed to have the ants spell his name by putting the phermones down in the right pattern.


      1. Yep. I’ve written some automata and despite having written the programs was still stunned at the apparent global order. There was one very simple rule (xor or something like that) that when ran produced a wide variety of patterns that reminded me of Persian rugs. Very impressive.

        There’s also a (minority) view that reality at its lowest level is a Cellular Automata.


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