Ants can be a nuisance when they storm your kitchen or invade your yard. But according to Noa Pinter-Wollman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, these tiny insects have a lot more in common with humans than you might imagine, and they might have some big lessons to teach us.
Pinter-Wollman and her colleagues recently studied the way ants construct their nests, and found implications for how we might approach problems like AI, supply chain issues, and traffic congestion.
“There's a lot of similarities [between humans and ants],” says Pinter-Wollman. “They also live in these big societies, they construct their environment, they make their own nest. Just like we build highways, they build these tunnels underground to move things. So we've thought a lot about how we might learn from these millions of years of evolution.”
In the study, Pinter-Wollman observed that the way ants build their nests is intrinsically linked to the way they forage. So for instance, ants who send out large trails of insects to gather food will have deeper nests to store their hauls.
But how do ants know how to do this? Pinter-Wollman says that while they have a queen, they’re not getting orders from a higher authority. Instead, they follow “local rules,” taking their cues from their surroundings and the ants around them.
“We can use these social insects to understand how they manage to produce such amazing structures without blueprints and without maps, and potentially figure out if there's ways that we can improve our engineering, according to some of the local rules that evolution has come up with,” she says.
Pinter-Wollman says one place we might learn from ants is in designing better supply chains to transport goods.
“Certain ants will form groups of shared resources. So instead of sharing resources one on one, they'll have sharing hubs that basically facilitate faster flow of certain foods,” she says. “But they … create these hubs only when they are given certain types of foods. So they can basically modify their supply chains, which can be then linked to what we do in terms of, do we need to transfer computer chips, or do we need to transfer food that is perishable?”
Ants might also help us improve more local forms of transportation.
“One day, hopefully, our freeways will be full of autonomous vehicles that will basically use the vehicles around them to decide what to do: when to move lanes, how fast to go,” says Pinter-Wollman. “So we can potentially get inspiration from the rules the ants follow to program the vehicles to use the cues around them so that the traffic can keep flowing.”
So next time you’re about to squash an ant, think twice, it could hold the secret to making your commute on the 405 freeway easier.