Published on Mon Jul 12 2021

Cooperative escape in ants and robots

Srinivasa Gopalakrishnan, G. P., Mandal, S., Giardina, F., Kennedy, J., Murthy, V. N., Mahadevan, L.

The solution of complex problems by the collective action of simple agents in both biologically evolved and synthetically engineered systems involves cooperative action. Understanding the resulting emergent solutions requires integrating across the organismal behaviors of many individuals.

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Abstract

The solution of complex problems by the collective action of simple agents in both biologically evolved and synthetically engineered systems involves cooperative action. Understanding the resulting emergent solutions requires integrating across the organismal behaviors of many individuals. Here we investigate an ecologically relevant collective task in black carpenter ants Camponotus pennsylvanicus: escape from a soft, erodible confining corral. Individual ants show a transition from individual exploratory excavation at random locations to spatially localized collective exploitative excavation and escape from the corral. A minimal continuum theory that coarse-grains over individual actions and considers their integrated influence on the environment leads to the emergence of an effective phase space of behaviors in terms of excavation strength and cooperation intensity. To test the theory over the range of predicted behaviors, we used custom-built robots (RAnts) that respond to stimuli and show the emergence (and failure) of cooperative excavation and escape. Overall, our approach shows how the cooperative completion of tasks can arise from relatively simple rules that involve the interaction of simple agents with a dynamically changing environment that serves as an enabler and modulator of behavior.