August 2010

Taking lessons from ants, fish and termites

By Peter Miller
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If you’ve ever lived in a house made of wood and found one termite, you likely recall finding thousands more attempting to make brunch out of your walls. They are a threat and a nuisance, not to mention totally gross. While they freely gnaw on your home, however, the method termites use to design their own living space—with intake and outflow holes for air, to create a virtual set of lungs inside the mound—is currently influencing architectural design for climate control in human dwellings. Similarly, the apparent chaos of a teeming ant colony reveals patterns that have influenced computer programs for streamlining factory work, telephone networks and truck routes. The lesson in all of this? Look to the swarm.

The Smart Swarm, that is. Author Peter Miller takes us inside African termite mounds, schools of fish, beehives and the balletic flight of starlings to illustrate how these “swarms” and their patterns of movement can be usefully harnessed by humans in a variety of circumstances. When ants are scouting for food, for example, their trips to and from the food source each leave a pheromone trail that the other ants can follow by smell. As each ant makes the run, the scent will become strongest along the easiest—shortest and predator-free—path, and the majority will travel that way based on the accumulation of data. Rather than debate the matter, information is accrued through action, not subjective thinking; for this reason, it translates perfectly to the world of computer algorithms, where data can be plugged in and the shortest distance between two package deliveries or telephone networks can be assessed and targeted.

Peter Miller has worked at National Geographic for over 25 years, and his descriptions of the insect and animal world reflect his background; the visual details pop, and the stories about the scientists collecting the data are a nice tribute to the labor involved in this sort of project (one rogue Cooper’s hawk undid several months of work with homing pigeons in an instant). His discussion of the human-world applications of these ideas is engaging, too, but the writing occasionally bogs down in scientific particulars and neglects the connection between the two concepts. Thankfully, there’s a neatly composed conclusion that ties them together, making The Smart Swarm a smart and fascinating read.

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The Smart Swarm

The Smart Swarm

By Peter Miller
ISBN 9781583333907

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