Saturday, July 06, 2013

Ants Teach Us About Internet and Economy

July 6, 2013, 12:48 p.m.

What’s especially remarkable: the close parallels between ant colonies’ networks and human-engineered ones. One example is “Anternet”, where we, a group of researchers at Stanford, found that the algorithm desert ants use to regulate foraging is like the Traffic Congestion Protocol (TCP) used to regulate data traffic on the internet.
-- Deborah Gordon, "What Do Ants Know That We Don’t?" Wired, July 6, 2013

Among the many benefits from studying anthropology, along with a factual foundation for celebrating diversity, is the humility from knowing our culture does not have all the answers.

Among the many benefits from studying biology is the heightened sense of humility from discovering how much our entire species has to learn from other species of animal and plant life.

Take ants for example.

As the opening quote suggests, it turns out that after 130 million years of experience and evolution in managing large organizations with no central control, ants have worked out many of the complex algorithms we need in running the Internet. Read the article linked above; it's a fascinating story.

But the one lesson that caught my eye was what ants have to teach us about economic recovery.

We're headed toward a world population of 9.1 billion persons -- a 34% increase in 37 years -- 70% of whom will be in urban areas (up from 49% today). To feed this increase we'll need roughly a 50% increase in cereal production and a 100% increase in meat production. That's only one of the many increased costs of increased population.

Ants have faced a somewhat similar challenge.

"Like human-engineered systems, ant systems must be robust to scale up as the colony grows . . .. [T]he ideal solutions utilize the contributions of each additional ant in such a way that the benefit of an extra worker outweighs the cost of producing and feeding one." Deborah Gordon, "What Do Ants Know That We Don’t?" Wired, July 6, 2013.

Isn't that our challenge? "Utiliz[ing] the contribution of each additional [person] in such a way that the benefit of [each] outweighs the cost of producing and feeding [them]"?

I've often said the greatest economic asset that humankind possesses is not our raw materials or industrial facilities. It is (at this point in time) 7 billion person-days per day. Any day an individual is standing on a street corner, locked in prison or in poverty, too hungry to summon the strength, too poorly educated to understand the job, is a day's work lost forever. Not just for that person, but for all of us.

What's lost is called opportunity cost: the vacant lot or river that might have been cleaned up; the home that might have been built, or insulated -- with the workers' added self-esteem that comes with honest labor and accomplishment, that slight bump up in a community's "happiness index."

But abandoned souls aren't free. In addition to opportunity cost, there's our out-of-pocket cost: the crime they may see as their only path to survival; the emergency room medical care; prisons as a public housing program; programs for the poor and unemployed, such as unemployment compensation and SNAP (food stamps). It costs only slightly, if any, more to pay them for working -- at anything.

Striving for full employment is also the shortest path out of the economic doldrums. As I wrote in 2008:
You can't improve business (profits, returns to shareholders, executive compensation) without improving retail sales; you can't improve retail sales without putting money in the hands, and confidence in the heads, of potential consumers; and unemployed consumers don't have money unless they are provided either unemployment compensation or wages from a public sector job (in an economy with a shrinking private sector). . . . [G]iven the same amount of money, using it to create "jobs" makes more sense than providing it for "unemployment compensation. But either makes more sense than trying to turn an economy around with "trickle down" -- whether tax cuts for the rich, or bailouts for the rich.
"Jobs, Not Unemployment, Key to Recovery; Why America Needs a Jobs Program: Because When Your Automobile (Industry) is in the River It Makes More Sense to Go For the Shore Than to Continue Bailing it Out," November 8, 2008.

It was I message I would repeat from time to time, including October of 2011: "short term, the way to bring ourselves out of the economic doldrums, to give a boost to our economy, to increase consumer spending, is to create more consumers, with greater confidence in their future prospects for employment. That means a full-employment economy; jobs for all; provided by the private sector when it's rational for business to do so, and provided by the federal government when it is not. . . . In January of 2009, had we taken all the money we lavished on the banks, auto and insurance industries, and other large corporations, and used it for wages for all, our economy would have turned around by the fall of 2009 at the latest, and be humming along right now." Economic Recovery? It's Simple and Obvious; Recovery Requires Consumers, and Consumers Require Jobs," October 13, 2011.

To these reasons, the ants have now given us another. If our species is to make it past 2050, we too must "utilize the contributions of each additional [person] in such a way that the benefit of an extra worker outweighs the cost of producing and feeding [and otherwise caring for] them."

There's a lot we can learn from other cultures and other creatures. And whether it's running the Internet or reviving our economy, we could do worse that to start by learning from the ants.

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Anonymous said...

You've gained a full time reader. How exceptional a concept... thank you for the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Our relentless human population growth, and the agriculture, resource extraction, and other impacts that accompany it, are already eliminating many other species that we could learn from. Our current global game of "How many human beings can we add to Planet Earth before the life support systems collapse?" is fundamentally insane. Reading about what is happening to global fresh water supplies and global biodiversity is not conducive to peaceful sleeping, and in Iowa, the average rowcropped acre is losing topsoil more than ten times as fast as nature can replace it. The old saying is ever more true -- whatever your cause, it's a lost cause unless we can stabilize the human population.