How Ants Are Fueling This AI Industry
Since the dawn of time, humans have looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration and guidance.
We discovered coffee from watching goats. Yes, goats. They ate red berries from the bushes in ancient Ethiopia that gave them unusual levels of energy.
The Wright brothers studied the flight patterns of birds in their initial attempts to take to the sky.
Air-conditioning and energy preservation in modern offices come from the observation of the self-cooling properties of African termite mounds.
And now, one of the biggest innovations in human history will come from one of the smallest and most common animals on earth. And that animal is Solenopsis, the common fire ant.
I'm not a bug person. My cousin is an entomologist at the University of Florida, and I just don't get it. She's got a pet scorpion and scarabs pinned to the wall. The whole thing gives me the creeps.
But let's say you're walking down the street and you see a discarded ice cream cone swarming with black ants. Your initial feeling is probably disgust. Most people don't like to see that many bodies with that many legs crawling over anything that was once food. But take a second and look closer...
There are hundreds of ants on this fallen dessert. They're collecting tiny parcels of rocky road and bits of sugar cone to bring back to their anthill. This dropped ice cream is literally covered with ants. But they're not crashing into each other. There's no infighting. And if they get in each other's way, they quickly and efficiently right their paths.
Could you imagine the pandemonium if you set the equivalent number of human beings to complete one task?
Picture midtown Manhattan in rush hour traffic. The cars are gridlocked, horns are blaring, and middle fingers are flying. We're trying to accomplish an even less complicated task than the ants, and we're all going to different homes. But we're failing...
Ants Teaching Us to Drive
But scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have noticed this human discrepancy. And they're applying ant's swarm behavior to the next technological revolution: self-driving cars.
We've been fantasizing about self-driving cars since The Jetsons. Driverless cars are one of those hard icons that indicate we're living in "the future."
Think about that reality for a second: You could nap on road trips or catch up on work. It would absolutely be the end of drunk driving. In fact, after a hard day at the office, you could unwind with a glass of scotch and a good book on the way home.
Not to mention the more practical application of this technology... In 2017, more than 40,000 people died in car accidents. By removing human error, this technology will save countless lives.
But whatever aspect you're excited about, we're standing on the precipice of an industry worth an estimated $7 trillion. Driverless cars will be the future of travel.
And you know who we have to thank for getting us closer than ever? Ants!
So, remember those scientists in Georgia that I mentioned earlier? They've been extensively studying the communicative behaviors of fire ants and learning how they work together so smoothly. After they watched hundreds of hours of ants digging through simulated glass-particle soil, they had a breakthrough.
The secret is a mixture of pheromones and vibrations that allow the ants to send out messages about tunnel clogs or ease of movement. The scientists had tried to install a similar system of vibro connections in a fleet of small tester robots. But they just ended up crashing into each other in the tunnels.
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But then Daniel Goldman, a professor at the Georgia Tech School of Physics and the head of the project, stopped focusing on the ants' communication. He instead started to consider how they allocate their work:
We noticed that if you have 150 ants in a container, only 10 or 15 of them will actually be digging in the tunnels at any given time. We wanted to know why, and to understand how basic laws of physics might be at work. We found a functional, community benefit to this seeming inequality in the work environment. Without it, digging just doesn't get done.
So, to emulate this distribution of labor, they reprogrammed the robots to alternate between three different setting: eager, reversal, and lazy. The result? No more crashes and no more pileups. Just smooth, seamless execution — like the ants.
That may be the ultimate irony. When driverless cars enter traffic scenarios, they'll mimic human personalities. Eager cars will transition to the front, lazy cars to the back, and reversal vehicles will calculate an alternate route. They'll cooperate with a hive's mind, like a swarm of ants. Traffic gridlocks will become a thing of the past.
We're closer than we've ever been to the reality of driverless cars. You're probably aware of the top competitors: Google, Tesla, and General Electric.
But as we move forward, let's keep our ears to the ground for smaller startups and potential breakthrough technologies — the ones that may yield incredible profits.
Contributing Editor, Park Avenue Digest
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