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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cleveland, Ohio And Ingenuity: Anyone Knows An Ant Can't

CLEVELAND (TDB) -- The annual summer shindig for sentient beings that is known as the Ingenuity Festival ends today, just as another event devoted to the creative juices begins a two-month run on the shores of Lake Erie. This one is about science and social animals -- how they solve problems, and how, by working together, they manage complex systems.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History is sponsoring demonstrations about swarm intelligence on Saturdays, peeking into a rapidly emerging area of research that asks and tries to answer this question: Individual creatures often aren't ingenuous, but their colonies act intelligently, how can they behave so wise and smart? Coincidentally, the topic of swarm behavior gets in-depth exploration in the July issue of National Geographic:

"A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.

Where this intelligence comes from raises a fundamental question in nature: How to the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree?"

It is all about ingenuity. At the museum, you'll be able to work like a swarm. Researchers at John Carroll University and Case Western Reserve University have been working on the science and designing robots the size of large cockroaches. They try to get swarms of human beings to perform various tasks collectively. It is one of the cool things happening in Ohio. The museum link above connects to a scientific paper published by the JCU and Case scientists.

For those not into scientific writing, which can be stodgy, read the National Geographic piece. It explains how researchers are trying to find out how the insects function as a group with no bosses in charge.

In 1959, Frank Sinatra sang "High Hopes" about the ant that moved a rubber tree plant and the song won an Oscar. (If you scan through the lyrics in the link you'll see he did a version promoting John F. Kennedy as the 1960 Democratic nominee. Swarm behavior? Or just the Rat Pack?)

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