What’s Smarter Than Google? Oh, Just Your Average Ant Colony

The tiny insects can process data more efficiently than the search engine, a new study says.

(Photo: CSA Images/Getty Images)

May 29, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Think ants are annoying pests that scurry across your kitchen counter in search of crumbs? Think again. If ants had a search battle with Google (and presumably, Bing), the insects would take the cake.

A research team from China and Germany observed colonies of ants as they looked for food and found the ants’ system to be comparable to hi-tech engineering operations.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that the insects’ search-feed method starts with one aimless worker ant on a forage hunt. If she (all worker ants are females that can’t reproduce) stumbles on food, the worker will take it home while leaving behind a trail of pheromones. Other ants will then be able to follow the path to the food source. Because the chemicals evaporate quickly, some ants might stray from the path but eventually find the food themselves. This process results in multiple trails. While the longer paths evaporate, the shortest course retains the strongest pheromones—optimizing the route.

“While single ants can appear chaotic and random-like, they very quickly become an ordered line of ants crossing the woodland floor in the search for food,” Jürgen Kurths, a coauthor of the study, told The Independent.

Google employs a similar method. Using software called “web crawlers,” the search engine follows link after link to navigate the Internet’s 60 trillion pages. Google sorts them by content and other factors, such as timeliness and site quality, using algorithms. This strategy might have changed the way we used the Web, but Kurths said that the ants’ method of searching for food is more efficient.

“The transition between chaos and order is an important mechanism, and I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that is more accurate and complex than a Google search,” Kurths told The Independent. “These insects are, without a doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.”

Not to say that ants could tell us what twerking or gluten is, but studying them more could help us make our own systems, such as the Internet and transportation, more efficient.