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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why don’t ants have traffic jams?

Why don’t ants have traffic jams?GOOD question. Or is it a stupid one?

“They never get stuck in traffic,” Audrey Dussutour, an entomologist in the University of Sydney, says in
‘Taking Traffic Control Lessons From Ants’ in Wired Science.

“We should use their rules. I’ve been working with ants for eight years, and have never seen a traffic jam...”

Why don’t ants have traffic jams?

If humans could learn from ants, they might spend less time in traffic jams, the story says. “When opposing
streams of leaf-cutter ants share a narrow path, they instinctively alternate flows in the most efficient way
possible. Studying how ants manage this could provide the basis for a system of driverless cars running on ant traffic algorithms.”

The operative word above is “driverless cars”. That is the reason ants don't have traffic jams. They are not
greedy nor selfish and, most importantly, not stupid. (I am, of course, talking about other people – we are
not like that, are we? Tut, tut. The way some people drive!)

Audrey Dussutour is only 30 years old but as a scientist, the quality of her work is already well recognised.
Her questions are simple. Why don’t ants get into traffic jams? Why don’t they bump into each other in
tight spaces? How do ants and social caterpillars make group decisions?

What factors govern decisions about whether or not ants will climb over or around walls? And so on.

In the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Dussutour’s team found that ants leaving
the colony automatically gave right of- way to those returning with food.

Right. Try telling our motorist that they are better off trailing that overloaded smoke-belching truck than
trying to overtake it. Like any other red-blooded egocentric human, I hate following that 30-vehicle-long
queue behind a truck.

But I also know that it would be futile, not to mention life threatening, to try to overtake it on a single-lane road, particularly with another massively over-laden under-powered truck also trying to pass it.

So, logically, the best thing to do would be to stop by a nice roadside warung for a drink, to stretch cramped legs and to buy some fruits, and then when one gets back on the road 15 minutes later, the queue would be nowhere to be seen.

Some readers are probably familiar with the work of Dr Richard Dawkins of Harvard. The Selfish
Gene, with its singularly persuasive argument that natural selection acts at the level of the gene and
only the gene, gave rise to the rather politically incorrect contention that evolution only favoured men (and
women) of quality, those who were brave, strong, innovative and smart.

He contended that there is no such thing as true altruism, that it is only selfishness in disguise.

Looking around us, it is understandable how easy it is to buy into that argument. One can’t help asking
the question if charitable organisations are genuinely charitable or are they merely vehicles for yet another
ego trip for some of its members?

Be honest; that thought has occurred in many of our heads.

Another scientist working with ants, some 14,000 species of them, is Dr Edward O Wilson, also of Harvard who, based on studies on the genetics of ant colonies, believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group, that often evolution takes place for the benefit of the group at the expense of the individual.

In humans, these take the form of generosity, morality, ethics, and even religion. (Dawkins coined the term
“meme” to account for the evolution of culture – a software evolution as opposed to the hard-wired one as it were.)

Still, people have long been fascinated with the organisational ability of ants and scientists are now converting ant traffic flows into algorithms that can be applied to data transmission and vehicular traffic.

For ants, common good is more important than individual good. This is hard-wired into them. Humans
preach the same thing (because it is politically correct, and makes them look good to do so) but their actions are often the opposite.

As for driving, Marcus Randall, a Bond University software mathematician says, “We essentially would
have to hand over control of the vehicle to a collectively intelligent system that would move all vehicles
from their source to destination (and) accidents would be virtually non-existent and travel would become
much more efficient.” University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider says, “One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism.” We can’t argue with that, but no one is about to be persuaded to give up driving – it is too much an extension of our ego.

But as a compromise, he says, improved communication between drivers and cars would help.

“This has already been achieved by new devices which transmit information about abrupt velocity decreases to the following cars, which then start to brake automatically, before the driver even realises the
need to brake.” Cool. Better than self-parking.


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