Being too busy with a confined space only creates confusion: it is as much in the kitchen in front of the stove as it is … in the dense network of tunnels dug by red ants. The proverbial industriousness of these insects is based on a golden rule: knowing how to pull back when there is excessive movement, and let others complete the work.

This form of non-opportunistic laziness, but functional to the community, had been known for some time, but now a study published in Science describes it precisely. Daniel Goldman, a physicist and robotics expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has dedicated himself to the study of these insects for years, because the programming of robots to be used in emergency situations will be based on their social interactions.

Leave it to us. In tight, timeless spaces to lose, the formation of a traffic jam would be counterproductive, and ants seem to know perfectly how to avoid it. Goldman and colleagues filmed groups of ants working in various earthen boxes set up in the laboratory, after having colored the abdomen of each specimen with temporary markers, to understand who from time to time ventured into the tunnels.

Records showed that, as a rule, 30% of insects took up 70% of the work. These indefatigable diggers continued even for 5 hours, while most of the others, noting the gathering of colleagues at work, did not even try to get to the heart of the operations. The 30/70 rule also held when workers were removed and moved elsewhere. In their place another 30% of willing took over.

Paramedic ants on the battlefields

The intelligence to let go. For Goldman, this unbalanced distribution of tasks, combined with the ability to draw back, is the most efficient strategy not only to dig tunnels, but in all situations where a traffic jam could slow down operations: for example, for swarms of robots employed in the search for survivors at the site of a disaster. The social dynamics of ants could teach a lot to the machines programmed to act in groups, and to the man who will have to program them.