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At Mind Matters News: For Ants, Building a Bridge Is No “Simple” Task


Richard Stevens notes that there is nothing “simple” about designing neural systems and the computer systems to receive and interpret neural sensory inputs:

Researching for my previous Mind Matters article about bird and bee biological software, I came across a short piece at Quanta Magazine entitled “The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges.” Really, a “simple” insect algorithm? Intriguing.

Eric Cassell’s book, Animal Algorithms (2021), reveals the complex and intricate hardware-software systems enabling bird and insect procedures for migration, building nests and structures, social cooperation, and navigation. Grounded in engineering training and experience, Cassell shows that animal algorithms must be designed top-down starting with a goal, fashioning the data input sensors, developing the necessary procedures, and implementing them in software to direct hardware. Yet the Quanta Magazine piece reported that Panamanian army ants’ procedures for building bridges of living ants is accomplished using a “simple algorithm.”

The problem the army ants must solve: crossing gaps and holes appearing in the path of a migrating ant colony. The Quanta piece reports research suggesting the ants deploy an algorithm with these basic elements:


Buried within the Quanta piece’s common verbs like “detects” is one whale of a lot of hardware and software. To “detect a gap” requires first the sensory hardware. The army ant needs a fully functional neural system with the sense of touch, probably smell, and perhaps some vision. There is nothing “simple” about designing neural systems and the computer systems to receive and interpret neural sensory inputs. Human scientists and engineers have labored for decades working on how to fashion neural-like hardware.

Richard Stevens,For ants, building a bridge is no “simple” task” at Mind Matters News (November 30, 2021)

Science media must describe the living ant bridge as “simple.” To deal with the true state of affairs would just raise too many questions.

Here’s an example:

Read the rules of the algorithm at For ants, building a bridge is no “simple” task.

Takehome: The Quanta piece promotes a notion that software algorithms are “simple.” To the contrary, it would take an army of engineers to do what ants do instinctually.

"Simple" programs, like "simple" bridges, are built on a huge scaffold of OS, BIOS, CPU, capacitors, resistors, plastics technology, gold-mining and gold-processing technology, laser technology, etc, etc, etc. We can get a lot done with three lines of code because millions of people have worked together to enable those three lines. The earliest example of this misunderstanding happened in 1914 when John Hammond invented a mechanical phototropic animal. It had selenium cells on both sides, and controlled two motors from the ratio of light sensed by the selenium cells. A brilliant analog device, before tubes and transistors. It was viewed as "simple" by biologists, who spent many years running experiments on live animals. They assumed that animals were equally simple. They covered one eye of an insect, assuming that the legs on one side would "slow down" just as Hammond's circuitry slowed down one motor. The bugs did walk in circles at first, but then figured out how to reach their destination with one eye. Hammond's invention was built by a brilliant mind with a purpose, on a technological superstructure that was a bit shorter than the modern version. It seemed simple because the biologists weren't looking at the purpose behind the scaffold. They also missed the bug's purposeful navigation. A good account of Hammond's "mechanical dog": https://books.google.com/books?id=hOA6AQAAMAAJ polistra

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