The Amazing, Embedded Intelligence of Ants

In high school, I listened to Adam and the Ants, and even enthusiastically informed my friends and family that they were the next Beatles — a mistake for which I was ribbed mercilessly for many years. Looking back, what I don’t quite understand was what ants had to do with their music. Was it their use of two drums to create that unusual beat, like two ants making “Ant Music”?

I like to think so, at least. Ants have an unusual way of communicating and distributing knowledge across their colonies. I am fascinated by the way that these creatures use pheromone signals, deposited through acts of foraging, to develop a shared understanding of their environment. This collective intelligence is not held by any single ant and neither is it simply held by the ants as a whole. It is an emergent intelligence that is part-ant and part pheromone-covered environment. It is as if the ants embed intelligence right into their environment.

In this way, ants are quite similar to us in the way we too embed intelligence into our “containers of collective intelligence.”

More and more research continues to come out about just how amazing these creatures actually are. Older ants will partner with younger ones, for instance, to ‘teach’ them to adopt their care for a particular trail before they die. Older colonies have also been shown to be smarter and more resilient than younger ones due to the complexity of their interactions:

Changes in colony behaviour due to past events are not the simple sum of ant memories, just as changes in what we remember, and what we say or do, are not a simple set of transformations, neuron by neuron. Instead, your memories are like an ant colony’s: no particular neuron remembers anything although your brain does.

An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have

Not all intelligence on this planet happens to look like our own. The sooner we understand that, the better prepared we will be for the new intelligence emerging from machines.

Thanks to Michel Bauwens for sharing this article on ant research on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “The Amazing, Embedded Intelligence of Ants”

    1. Thanks so much for making that connection, Emlyn. It’s a concept I throw around a lot (even gave a talk on it), but this is the first time I’ve come across that term. I’m indebted.

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