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At Mind Matters News: Do ants think? Yes, they do — but they think like computers

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Computer programmers have adapted some ant problem-solving methods to software programs (but without the need for complex chemical scents):

Navigation expert Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021), offers some insights in the book into how ants organize themselves using what amount to algorithms, without any central command…

Ants are remarkably consistent in their lifestyle: All of the roughly 11,000 species of ants live in groups, large or small. There are no known solitary ants. Living in groups requires a social group lifestyle that includes “agriculture, territorial wars, slavery, division of labor, castes, consensus building, cities, and a symbolic language.” (p. 85) How is this to be managed by ants with very small brains (200,000 to 250,000 neurons*) and very limited individuality? …

Ants communicate mainly by pheromones, scents that provide information. In their book, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2008), Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson (1929–2021) identified twelve areas of communication mediated by pheromones, including “alarm, attraction, recruitment, grooming, feeding, exchange of fluids and solid particles, group effect, recognition of nestmates, caste determination, control of other individuals competing for reproduction, territoriality, and sexual communication” (p. 90). What makes pheromones a complex communication system is that most emissions are of several pheromones mingled rather than one only. Some signals are recognized by all ants in the vicinity, others only by the species, and others are specific to a colony. One evolutionary biologist describes the processing of pheromones as equivalent to AND gates and STOP in a computer system. (p. 91). So the ant is not so much thinking what to do as responding to an AI-like signal.

News, “Do ants think? Yes, they do — but they think like computers” at Mind Matters News (May 30, 2022)

Ant researcher Deborah M. Gordon calls it the … aw, you guessed! … the anternet.

Takehome: Navigation expert Eric Cassell points out that algorithms have made the ant one of the most successful insects ever, both in numbers and complexity. Computer programmers use some of the same basic structures.


You may also wish to read: How do insects use their very small brains to think clearly? How do they engage in complex behaviour with only 100,000 to a million neurons? Researchers are finding that insects have a number of strategies for making the most of comparatively few neurons to enable complex behavior.

One Reply to “At Mind Matters News: Do ants think? Yes, they do — but they think like computers

  1. 1
    doubter says:

    The new article in Mind Matters uses various professional scientific sources to point out that in one case (ants), their “thinking” is more akin to AI computer processing utilizing algorithms. All computer programs essentially are algorithms, and many animals cleverly utilize them for their most basic life patterns. In their use of computer-like algorithms (at least in the ants) there is no indication of consciousness, any more than is the case with even the most advanced human-created AI systems. There are “intelligent” sorts of behaviors, but this application of the word assumes far too much.

    Part of the problem is the ambiguous and often incorrect use of the term Intelligence, as in “artificial intelligence” or AI. The dictionary definition of intelligence is mostly inseparable from consciousness, as in the following:

    “Capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.
    manifestation of a high mental capacity:

    He writes with intelligence and wit.

    The faculty of understanding.”

    But unfortunately, the correct meaning of “intelligence” is unrecognizably stretched out by its use by computer scientists and other experts to refer to the data processing using algorithms that is the sole accomplishment of computers and AI systems (which we know are devoid of consciousness). They have absolutely no understanding, grasping at truths, wit, etc., which are the sole territory of consciousness.

    I think the main point of the article is that for all practical purposes ants demonstrate complex behaviors that can be entirely explained by computer-like algorithmic stimulus/response networks (which in themselves are not conscious).

    The implication is that since there is no other behavior that might offer clues that consciousness is also operating, there is therefore no consciousness in the ants.

    As opposed to human beings, where certainly much behavior can be explained by algorithmic processes, but there is also very much other behavior that absolutely can’t be so explained and is attributed to consciousness. Aside of course from the self-evident personal observation that “I think therefore I am”.

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