Deborah Gordon on Ant Colonies as Distributed Computers

The popular conception of ants is that “anatomy is destiny”: an ant’s body type determines its role in the colony, for once and ever. But this is not the case; rather than forming rigid castes, ants act like a distributed computer in which tasks are re-allocated as the situation changes. “Division of labor” implies a constant “assembly line” environment, not fluid adaptation to evolving conditions. But ants do not just “graduate” from one task to another as they age; they pivot to accept the work required by their colony in any given moment. In this “agile” and dynamic process, ants act more like verbs than nouns — light on specialization and identity, heavy on collaboration and responsiveness.

What can we learn from ants about the strategies for thriving in times of uncertainty and turbulence?What are the algorithms that ants use to navigate environmental change, and how might they inform the ways that we design technologies? How might they teach us to invest more wisely, to explore more thoughtfully?

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