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What can insects teach us about problem-solving?

The next time you consider squashing an ant, spare a thought for Tanya Latty. An entomologist with a special interest in insect behaviour and ecology, Latty spends the bulk of her days studying how these tiny organisms band together to solve complex problems.

A postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, Latty grew up in Toronto and has always been fascinated by insects. “I was one of those kids who would catch them, bring them home and lose them in the house,” she laughs. “Insects are everywhere and they impact everything we do. They pretty much run the world and if they disappear tomorrow, well, that’s it.”

Insects are everywhere and they impact everything we do. They pretty much run the world and if they disappear tomorrow, well, that’s it.

About a third of our food plants rely on insect pollination. These little creatures also do a fine job of removing waste from our streets and protecting crops from pests. However, it’s the power of their collective mind that fascinates Latty.

Understanding collective intelligence

How is it that ants can locate your picnic so quickly or identify the shortest pathway between their nests? It comes down to swarm intelligence. Latty is working with computer scientists to develop algorithms based on ant colony optimisation, and her research is also inspiring new supply chain solutions based on the collective thinking of these little organisms.

Ants are very good at sharing information. The invasive Argentine ants, for example, communicate with each other by tapping their stomachs on the ground to release pheromones, which mark out a trail like invisible breadcrumbs. Rather than having one central nest, these ants may have hundreds and they need to identify the easiest way of carrying food from one to the next.

“They leave a pheromone network that allows them to always find the shortest way of connecting two points,” explains Latty. “It’s amazing, because it’s not an easy problem to solve. Argentine ants are astonishingly dumb and they surprise you with the number of things that they can’t do on their own. However, when together they are pretty good at solving these shortest-path problems. It’s a combination of the way their pheromones work and individual behaviour that allows them collectively to solve problems.”

Latty believes organisations could benefit from understanding the swarm mentality of creatures such as ants. “Social insects have got big, complex societies that are decentralised,” she explains. “Many organisations have distinct hierarchies, which is opposite to the way ants are organised. Ants have had millions of years of evolution to come up with good ways of solving problems collectively and cooperatively. It makes sense to try to learn as much from that as we can.”

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