This is a strange way to begin, but moving to California has reminded me of an interest in an Algorithm that I’ve always found fascinating: Ant Walks.
I hadn’t expected to return to that particular algorithm, but it turns out there’s a reason why people become fascinated with it. Because it’s somewhat an attempt to describe the behaviour of ants… which California has given me an opportunity to study first hand.
I’m moving in a week or two, but I have to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with the Ant colony in the back yard. I won’t really miss them, because they’re seriously everywhere. Although I’ve learned how to keep them out of the house, and they dont’ really bother me much, they’re persistent and highly effective at finding food. Especially crumbs left on the kitchen floor. (By the way, strategic placement of ant repellent, and the ants actually have a pretty hard time finding their way in… but that’s another post for another day.)
Regardless, the few times that the ants have found their way inside have inspired me to watch them and learn a bit about how they do what they do – and it’s remarkably similar to the algorithm based off of their behaviour. First, they take advantage of sheer numbers. They don’t really care about any one individual, and thus they just send each ant out to wander around. Basically, it’s just a divide and conquer, with zero planning. The more ants they send out, the more likely they are to find something. If you had only two or three ants, it would be futile… but 50-100 ants all wandering in a room with a small number of crumbs will result in the crumbs all being found.
And then there’s the whole thing about the trails. Watching them run back and forth along the trails really shows you that the ants do know exactly where they’re going, when they have somewhere to be. When they get to the end, they seem to go back into the “seeking” mode, so you can concentrate the search for relevance to a smaller area, for a more directed random search.
All and all, it’s fascinating. Unfortunately, unlike Richard Feynman, I haven’t had the time to set up Ant Ferries as a method of discouraging the ants from returning – my daughter and wife are patient, but not THAT patient – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a chance to observe them. I have to admit, of all the things that I thought would entertain me in California, I didn’t expect that Ants would be on that list.
Anyone interested in doing some topology experiments? (-;