Deciphering the Algorithms Used by Ants and the Internet | News

COLD SPRING HARBOUR, NY, March 1, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Engineers sometimes look to nature for inspiration. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Associate Professor Saket Navlakha and scientific researcher Jonathan Suen found that adjustment algorithms – the same feedback control process by which the Internet optimizes data traffic – are used by several natural systems to sense and stabilize behavior, including ant colonies, cells, and neurons .

Internet engineers carry data around the world in small packets, which are analogous to ants. As Navlakha explains:

“The goal of this work was to bring together ideas from machine learning and internet design and relate them to how ant colonies feed.”

The same algorithm used by internet engineers is used by ants when looking for food. At first, the colony can send out a single ant. When the ant returns, it provides information about how much food it got and how long it took to get it. The colony would then send out two ants. If they return with food, the colony may send three, then four, five, and so on. But if ten ants are sent and most do not return, then the colony does not decrease the number it sends to nine. Instead, he drastically reduces the number, a multiple (say half) of what he sent before: just five ants. In other words, the number of ants slowly adds up when the signals are positive, but drops dramatically when the information is negative. Navlakha and Suen note that the system works even if individual ants get lost, and parallels a particular type of “additive increase/multiplicative decrease” algorithm used on the Internet.

Suen thinks ants could inspire new ways to protect computer systems from hackers or cyberattacks. Engineers could mimic how nature resists a range of threats to health and viability. Suen explains:

“Nature has proven to be incredibly robust in many aspects in response to changing environments. In cybersecurity [however] we find that many of our systems can be tampered with, can be easily broken, and are simply not robust. We want to look at nature, which survives all kinds of natural disasters.”

As Suen plans to apply nature’s algorithms to engineering programs, Navlakha would like to see if engineering solutions could offer alternative approaches to understanding gene regulation and immune feedback control. Navlakha hopes “successful strategies in one area could lead to improvements in the other.”

About the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Founded in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, and quantitative biology. Home to eight Nobel laureates, the private non-profit Laboratory employs 1,100 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians. For more information, visit

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SOURCE Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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