Ants on the brain

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25 February 2009

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Colonies of social insects such as ants and bees could collectively make decisions using mechanisms similar to those used in primate brains, according to new research published today.

By analysing models from neuroscience and insect sociobiology, Dr James Marshall from the Department of Computer Science and colleagues show how colonies of house-hunting social insects could collectively compromise between the speed and accuracy of decision-making, using mechanisms similar to those used by neurons in the primate brain.

The results, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, draw the first formal parallels between decision-making circuits in the primate visual cortex and social insect colonies. Both systems make choices that reflect an optimal compromise between speed and accuracy of decision-making, by assessing competing streams of evidence.

James has been researching and modelling the collective decision-making abilities of ants and other social insects for over 5 years, in a close collaboration with the the world-famous social insect expert Professor Nigel Franks, of the School of Biological Sciences. As well as advancing understanding of decision-making in social insect colonies and other biological systems, James hopes that these theoretical efforts might have benefits for Computer Science, in the form of novel optimal algorithms for controlling networks of computers, inspired by the ants' behaviour. Such algorithms could be particularly relevant for control in the new area of 'cloud computing' being developed by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, HP Labs and other global high-tech companies.

The work was featured in the Guardian, and on several news websites such as


Photo (c) Nigel Franks

University Press Release