Ants Invented the Internet Millions of Years Ago

Compared to ants, which have been networking for millions of years, humans are Internet newbies, according to Stanford researchers.

by / August 27, 2012

Overlapping research by two Stanford scientists revealed that the behavior of harvester ants and Internet protocols have a lot in common. Deborah Gordon, a biology professor who has been studying ants for more than 20 years, contacted Balaji Prabhakar, a computer science professor, after she suspected there was some kind of connection. At first, Prabhakar didn't see it.

"The next day it occurred to me, 'Oh wait, this is almost the same as how [Internet] protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!'" Prabhakar said. "The algorithm the ants were using to discover how much food there is available is essentially the same as that used in the transmission control protocol (TCP). Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they've been doing it for millions of years."

Several behaviors in ants were found that mirrored man-made protocols for managing the flow of data. In TCP for instance, a signal called an acknowledgment is returned to the sender to show that a data packet arrived to its intended destination. The relative speed at which acknowledgments return to the sender can indicate congestion and help the system manage data flow efficiently. Likewise, ants use acknowledgment in a similar way by sending single ants back to the nest from a food search. A similar algorithm is supposed to be used by ants to determine which food source is best. If ants begin returning empty-handed or less frequently, traffic is redirected elsewhere.

Gordon said scientists have a lot to learn from ant colony behavior that could help in the design of networked systems.

To read the full story, visit the Stanford News website.