Ants don’t tend to get in traffic jams. They might butt heads (or antennae) momentarily as they go about their industrious business, but ants somehow have mastered the art of keeping things moving. They’re geniuses of flow.

Another striking thing about ants is that some of them just sit around doing nothing. This has also been noticed in other social insects, such as bees. When ants build a nest, some of them just sit around, inert, lazy, seemingly useless.

Now a study out of Georgia Tech, published Thursday in the journal Science, combines these observations to deliver a lesson that could have implications for things such as how the robots of the future might be used for disaster relief. The researchers found that ants are more successful when they are selectively industrious. They use idleness to their advantage. Quitting has its virtues.

The researchers studied groups of 30 color-coded ants digging tunnels in glass-walled containers in a laboratory. About 30 percent of the ants did 70 percent of the work. Some ants did very little or nothing. When the researchers removed the most hard-working ants, some of the previously less-active ants stepped up their game and began working harder. It appears that industriousness is not an individual attribute but a defined role. It’s like a job title: heavy lifter.

When excavating a tunnel during the frenzy of nest-building, the tunnel face – the deep end of the tunnel – can get crowded. That can cause traffic jams. What the researchers noted is that some ants turn around and leave the tunnel without doing any work. These reversals limit the potential for clogging up the works.

The team created computer models with simulated ants and found that this system of selective idleness enables the ants to dig deep faster. Their method reduces the chances of clogs. In effect, the ants have solved the eternal problem of too many cooks in the kitchen.

“What the ants have discovered is pretty close to the best way to do it. You need the idleness distribution and the appropriate amount of giving up,” said Daniel Goldman, a Georgia Tech physicist who runs the lab and is the senior author of the new study.

“It’s a nice example of where doing less gives you more. And perhaps the most,” said Ofer Feinerman, a physicist who studies ants at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and who was not involved in the new research. “It seems the ants do the best that they could have done.”

The Georgia Tech team built robots to try to simulate the ant behavior and couldn’t quite match it, apparently because a robot is clunkier than a segmented, limber ant. But the robot work confirmed the basic idea that simple rules, such as knowing when to quit and let other individuals do the work, can benefit the overall project.

This kind of investigation could lead to improved designs for robot swarms.

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