Why bees soared and slime flopped as inspirations for systems engineering

February 18, 2018

Bees? Great. Ants? Hit or miss. Slime mold amoebas? Fail. Though nature offers excellent design inspirations in some information technology systems, in other systems, it can bomb.

Known for his work on The Honey Bee Algorithm, which tamed web traffic instabilities on servers by mimicking the behavior of bee colonies, systems researcher Craig Tovey has seen plenty of nature-inspired technological feats, but also foibles. He's sharing them in a talk on Sunday, February 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas.

(To attend, see: "What Systems Engineers Can Learn from Honey Bees and Other Organisms, 4:30 p.m. Central, Austin Convention Center, room 18B.)

In 2016, the bee-inspired algorithm garnered Tovey and his collaborators a Golden Goose Award, which commends curiosity-driven research as it blossoms to palpably benefit society. The Honey Bee Algorithm, for example, significantly reduced web hosting costs.

"We lucked out with the bees and web hosting," said Tovey, who hopes that along with practical takeaways on naturally inspired technology, his audience will also share in his own awe and affection for nature's solutions.

When algorithms are eternal

"When you study swarming bees, you discover truths that are lasting. The algorithms that guide them evolved over millions of years, and will hopefully still be there for millions of years to come," said Tovey, a co-director of Georgia Tech's Center for Biologically Inspired Design. "Compare that with when you design a new microcircuit. Three years later it's gone, forever lost; replaced by new designs."

Whether mimicking nature is prudent in a particular engineering job depends a lot on the problem to be solved. Often, it's just better to use something off the shelf or adapt it.

"When the real-life problem is static and well-defined with predictable data, then the nature-inspired methods are usually much weaker, much worse than classical optimization methods," Tovey said.

When boring is better

The "Traveling Salesman Problem" is a typical example. A researcher tries to compute the best pathways a proverbial salesperson should travel, and in which order, to visit hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of proverbial cities on a map.

The goal is to travel the shortest possible total distance.

"Nature-inspired approaches will find good solutions for 100 or so cities, but not optimal ones," said Tovey, who is also a professor and Stewart Faculty Fellow in Georgia Tech's Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. "By contrast, the top researchers can solve 20,000 or 50,000 locations optimally with a classical algorithm, and do it really quickly."

When ants miss and hit

"People have imitated ants to find the optimal pathways through a static system, and when you compare that method with classical optimization methods, then the classical methods are about 10 billion times better."

But life is fickle, which can make it a great teacher in science and engineering. "Every living creature is very good at solving a number of different problems, otherwise it would have gone extinct," Tovey said.

Toss unpredictability into an engineering problem, and natural algorithms that direct the movements of ants or bees can be better equipped to cope than classical solutions.

"In the Traveling Salesman Problem, the cities don't move around. But when you're chasing a moving target, and your data isn't perfectly complete, then you can have great success by imitating insect swarms. You can get real-time control on data that's quite literally on the fly," Tovey said.

When bees know best

That counts for a lot in a pinch. When a hurricane looms, people check their weather apps much more frequently as the tempest encroaches. When markets tank, people sell off stocks, and data surges in and out of financial servers.

"If the patterns of user demand on the web never changed, and the requests to a server always stayed the same, all would be well without imitating honeybees," Tovey said. "But that notion is ridiculous, as we all know."

"Bees have evolved to deal with flower patches that have changing characteristics. A patch that is great to visit at 10 o'clock in the morning may have its flowers closed-up at one o'clock in the afternoon, or it may be raining."

Algorithms steering bee behavior make the insect swarms adjust to supply and demand fluxes similar to those that confront a web server. The honeybees handed Tovey and his fellow researchers valuable insights for their web hosting algorithm.

When slime flops but amazes

Though classic algorithms beat nature in simple situations, watching natural algorithms in even the simplest organisms can be awe-inspiring. Take slime mold, a non-cellular organism related to amoebas.

"If you put down lumps of food near it, the slime mold will extend to reach the lumps and connect them with each other."

The mold makes very efficient connections that adapt well to differing constellations of food dabs.

"Some researchers placed food sources in spots corresponding to the locations of cities in Japan that were connected by rail lines, and sure enough, the slime mold eventually settled on a configuration connecting the spots that nearly perfectly matched the rail network that actually connected the cities," Tovey said.

Again here, classic algorithms do the job better, but still, that slime is just amazing.

For all his awe of bees, Tovey has had to avoid making their acquaintance in person and leave the bee-handling to his collaborators. "I and my whole family are all extremely allergic to bee stings," Tovey said. "We keep EpiPens around the house."
-end-
The Honey Bee Algorithm team that received the 2016 Golden Goose was comprised of: Tovey, John Bartholdi III, Sunil Nakrani, Thomas Seeley, and John Hagood Vande Vate. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.



Georgia Institute of Technology

Related Engineering Articles from Brightsurf:

Re-engineering antibodies for COVID-19
Catholic University of America researcher uses 'in silico' analysis to fast-track passive immunity

Next frontier in bacterial engineering
A new technique overcomes a serious hurdle in the field of bacterial design and engineering.

COVID-19 and the role of tissue engineering
Tissue engineering has a unique set of tools and technologies for developing preventive strategies, diagnostics, and treatments that can play an important role during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Engineering the meniscus
Damage to the meniscus is common, but there remains an unmet need for improved restorative therapies that can overcome poor healing in the avascular regions.

Artificially engineering the intestine
Short bowel syndrome is a debilitating condition with few treatment options, and these treatments have limited efficacy.

Reverse engineering the fireworks of life
An interdisciplinary team of Princeton researchers has successfully reverse engineered the components and sequence of events that lead to microtubule branching.

New method for engineering metabolic pathways
Two approaches provide a faster way to create enzymes and analyze their reactions, leading to the design of more complex molecules.

Engineering for high-speed devices
A research team from the University of Delaware has developed cutting-edge technology for photonics devices that could enable faster communications between phones and computers.

Breakthrough in blood vessel engineering
Growing functional blood vessel networks is no easy task. Previously, other groups have made networks that span millimeters in size.

Next-gen batteries possible with new engineering approach
Dramatically longer-lasting, faster-charging and safer lithium metal batteries may be possible, according to Penn State research, recently published in Nature Energy.

Read More: Engineering News and Engineering Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.