Can ants teach us work-life balance?

Understanding decentralized organization and information sharing in ants colonies. Can ants teach us how to design a new social contract for our societies?

By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it. Eliezer Yudkowsky

All organizations rely on division of labor to optimize resources for survival or the greater good of societies. In human organizations, leaders, engineers, or other gurus traditionally allocate roles from the top. Could decentralized organizations be more flexible and cheaper to operate? Will instantaneous information sharing (via social media) trigger some disruption and transform of our society? How should individuals decide what to do to succeed in our fast changing world? Well, clues to start answering these questions emerge from the study of social insect colonies.

Ant colonies are complex societies with industrial-scale farming

10,000 years ago, humans gave up their life as hunter-gatherers to become farmers. For the Attini ants from South America, this critical agricultural revolution took place at the end of the dinosaur age. Some 65 million years ago, they began farming fungus “to produce edible proteins, lipids [fats] and carbohydrates through decomposition.”

In both cases, converting to farming was not immediately successful. It required further evolution on two fronts: technology and organization, state a research in Nature Communications.

For the ants, the technological success was the domestication of fungus species that were metabolically more efficient to digest. In parallel, ants developed “complex societies with industrial-scale farming” able to react quickly to changes. Colonies were prepared to resist environmental shift (eg drop in organic material) or adverse events (eg wars).

Ants teach us how to use social media
Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television—Lewis Thomas

Flexible organizations are key for survival

There are different types of insect organization, says a study published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. One model relies on specialization of role based on age or morphology. For instance:

  • The largest ants with augmented mandibles cut the green leaves
  • The mid-sized ones transport them back to the nest
  • The smaller workers harvest the fungus
  • Older ants specialize in finding food supply, having better knowledge of the nest surroundings

To meet the colony need at all time, the exact type and number of ants must be produced. Quite a complex task when factoring sudden changes in external conditions, breeding latency and shift in mortality rate. Such systems are generally efficient in stable habitat but suffer from a lack of reactivity in more volatile environments.

In contrast, more flexible organizations are decentralized in various structure:

  • In some organization, individuals continuously monitor the colony welfare. They switch task upon the occurrence of certain stimuli such as nest temperature or chemical secretion (pheromone).
  • Other systems are based on local need. The inactive ant workers wander and engage in tasks when stumbling upon the stimuli.
  • In alternative systems, each worker is subject to the same stimuli but act differently based on their respective response thresholds. Such response thresholds in ants can be set genetically or during larva development, possibly changing with age. 

The key to flexible organizations is to produce, gather and interpret information without incurring prohibitive costs. For ants, time and energy spent to find or produce food is the main cost of the colony.

Evidence of individual behaviors in colonies

However, the ability of individual members to process cognitive information helps the colony to be smarter about its environment. It enhances the decision making. For example, the Newscientist describes the process by which ants select their home.  The more satisfied an ant is with a possible location, the more time it spends secreting pheromone in it. And the more chemicals, the more likely other ants will join to form the nest.

Here again, the various response thresholds in ants play a role. Ants with the lower response thresholds seed the majority that will accept the new location. However, the ones with the higher response thresholds will continue to scout for a better place. Accordingly, individual behaviors are differentiated for the greater good of societies.

Ants teach us how to take a break in a hammock
If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics? Marie Dressler

Similarly, when a worker finds food, the ant brings back a piece of it to the nest. They leave behind a trail of pheromone to lead other ants back to the food source, says another PNAS research. Other scouting ants will likely do the same, resulting in lots of pheromone trails more or less efficient. However, the shorter the trail, the stronger is the chemical. As a result, more ants take the shortest way which further reinforces the scent. The highest traffic quickly sets the optimized route to the food source.

This sorting of the most relevant information is very fast and more reliable than most of our internet search engines. Emulating such optimization process is the next challenge for human organizations.

Ants teach us how to use social media technology

Today, many industries are embracing decentralized operations. They collect information from smartphones, social media or other data sources to help predict future events or solve optimization problems.

It can be as simple as reducing congestion in airports, like at Narita Airport near Tokyo. The number of immigration counters had not kept up with the increase in foreign visitors, resulting in long waiting times. Airlines, airport and Ministry of Justice agreed to share Information in January 2015 about the number of non-Japanese passengers arriving. This allowed bottom-up decision-making regarding the number of counter to open upon passenger arrival, cutting wait times in half.

Science Advances reports another original application to detect large earthquakes via the GPS included in smartphones. In short, A magnitude-7 earthquake is spotted if a sufficient number of phones located in the same sector reports at the same time at least a 5 centimeter displacement.

In California, less than 5,000 phones would be needed to detect such seismic wave in just 5 seconds. It would enable an alert to nearby large cities and the deployment of protective measures.

Can ants teach us how to overcome the growing gap between productivity and unemployment?
Recent increase in decentralized information technologies
add to the fear of job reduction and social injustice

But can ants teach us how to design a new social contract?

Of course, the increased usage of decentralized information technologies to optimize and automate tasks in human organizations or societies adds to the fear of job reduction and social injustice.

Looking again at social insect colonies, where 50 to 70% of workers are inactive, provides surprising perspectives. Of course, keeping a spare number of inactive ant workers save energy. Nonetheless, inactive workers remain ready for peak workload, including war or new colony settlements. The key to flexible organizations may depend on the right balance of response threshold to stimuli from the environment.

To prevent social injustice from new technologies, human societies will have to define a new social contract. A welfare system could support inactive workers in exchange for call of duty upon the occurrence of common purposes. Hopefully, such calls will not be for wars, but more peaceful endeavors. Maybe to open a human settlement on Mars or in a galaxy far, far away…

To prevent social injustice from new technologies while gaining efficiency and maintaining sustainability, human societies will need to define a new social contract. One that will provide a welfare systems to support inactive workers in exchange for call of duty upon the occurrence of common purposes. Hopefully such calls will not be for wars, but for more peaceful endeavors like opening human settlements on Mars or in a galaxy far, far away….

Soundtrack about what ants teach us

Soundtrack for video on what ants can teach us. The music is constructed around southern Europe guitars to evoke the far niente

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